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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Our Musical Heritage in London



Alan Mills writes about the treasure trove that is the British Library, and the benefits it bestows on all of us; from the student, to the professor, to the man on the street.

Dr. Johnson's famous assertion that, when someone is 'tired of London', they are also 'tired of life' is just as debatable today as it probably was in the 18th century. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that being in London gives one access to a whole range of musical experiences that smaller centres can seldom match. Apart from the endlessly varied and continuous flow of concerts presenting all kinds of music, the good, the bad, and the ugly - plus shops retailing a striking range of sheet music and CDs (though maybe not quite so impressive as formerly) - there is also, thankfully, the British Library, sandwiched for fifteen years now between two mainline railway stations, and sitting back from the busy Euston Road to give it some sense of peace and quiet - though not so far back as to suggest a withdrawal from everyday life.


For those of us who feel that the past is a living thing, with the power to shape and influence our present-day world, the British Library is a storehouse of treasures. One of the world's most important copyright libraries, it holds an unimaginable amount of manuscript and printed material from all periods and all cultures. For the musician, its riches are as exciting as any riches could ever be. Some of these are placed on display in one of the galleries open to the general public - original manuscripts by many famous composers, early printed volumes taking us back to the world where Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn (see the bass part of the Tudor anthology 'XX Songes' printed in 1530, the other parts are still missing, alas) and bringing us almost up-to-date with material from The Beatles in the 1960's, the BL seemingly has it all, or very nearly.



Anyone wishing to explore things further will need to obtain a Reader's Pass - but for the serious student this is simply a minor formality. Having access to the Reading Room for Rare Books and Music opens up a new, much deeper, level of the treasures already referred to. I myself have spent so many hours there, poring over material which I hardly ever imagined I would one day have access to. For example, as a teenager I was a keen enthusiast for early English keyboard music, and once tried to see a 16th century manuscript held in the library of Trinity College, Dublin - but this wasn't possible, unfortunately. However, in the British Library I have cautiously leafed through an early edition of 'Parthenia' - the first keyboard music to be printed in England, dating from around 1612, and containing twenty-one pieces by three generations of English composers - William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons - all of them still living in 1612, and undoubtedly glad to welcome this new departure in British music publishing. As 'Parthenia' is very much a landmark, it was fascinating to see just how it originally appeared - oddly-formatted, and with many blank pages as the musical text was hardly ever printed on both sides. The actual type-size used for the pieces is also rather small to modern eyes; perhaps Shakespeare's contemporaries found it easier to read by candlelight than we imagine!

Many famous composers have left their mark on other early publications stored in the Library's vaults - from an inscription on the title-page, to handwritten corrections added to the printed text. There is a thrill of connectedness to rest your hand on the very paper where Haydn rested his (and left his signature) over two hundred years ago. And examining a copy of the first edition of Schubert's 'Erlk├Ânig' reveals that the composer has added the initials 'FS' on the back page, and also numbered the copy. As this Opus 1 was paid for by subscription, it's not unlikely that Schubert himself had to organise the delivery of these copies to the various subscribers - and maybe his numbering system was connected to this in some way. But we can only imagine the young composer's thrill of pride and satisfaction as he handled these slim oblong booklets - almost his first music to appear in print - and perhaps experience our own distant echo of that long-vanished thrill.

Serious researchers, as well as thrill-seekers, can find plenty to occupy their attention in the library - so much so that one example will have to suffice. The first complete printing of Bach's Six Partitas from 1731 appears in a copy containing many additions in the composer's handwriting. Bach often tinkered with the text of his works, leaving plenty of editorial matters to be resolved by future generations. Here, in marking his after-thoughts, he has used brown ink - or at least ink which has faded to brown, while the printer's ink has remained solidly black. This is just as well - because, without that difference in colour, it would be hard to distinguish what was originally printed from what has been added in subsequently. This particular volume is of crucial importance in helping the modern editor to establish a reliable text of the Partitas, one that hopefully represents the composer's final thoughts on these wonderful pieces.

If the musical past is going to enlighten our present in any sense, we need ways and means - online and offline - of accessing its resources. The British Library in London is one of the greatest storehouses of what this past has bequeathed to us - so let's surrender ourselves to its unique and timeless fascination!

Alan Mills is a composer, keyboardist, and teacher of music. His works for Music Haven include song cycles, works for piano, harpsichord, and string quartet. A full list of his Music Haven works can be found here.

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