Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Ephemeral Music?-The 'Secondary Music' Collection at the British Library

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Ephemeral Music?-The 'Secondary Music' Collection at the British Library

Article excerpt

I do not pretend to set myself up as an arbiter of what is good or bad in original compositions, which to a certain extent may be a matter of opinion; but I do maintain without fear of contradiction, that a great proportion of the music which is annually deposited in the Museum in compliance with the Copyright Act, neither is or ever can be of the slightest use for reference or any other purposes ... (1)

--Thomas Oliphant, 1850


How much ink has been spilled discussing the so-called great works of musical history and those that compete to be thought of as such? But what about the kind of music referred to by Oliphant, that has existed through all ages: a representative example of which might be a score like Figure 1.

The focus of this article is a collection of such music at the British Library, received automatically by legal deposit over a period of about one hundred years, and left in part uncatalogued. Initially dismissed as ephemeral rubbish (2), it came to form a 'secondary' music collection. As much remains uncatalogued my primary aim is to raise awareness of its existence; but also, I hope, to give some impression of the many and various narratives that it can contribute to. The thread running through the article as a whole is that while attitudes towards the contents of the collection and others like it may have changed, the difficulty of dealing with it, in many ways, has not.

The 'Secondary' Music Collection

This 'secondary' collection was originally formed from printed music scores received by legal deposit and thought to be of secondary importance around the mid-1880s; it was added to roughly through to the mid-1980s (3). While the voluntary work of Edward Claude Sington (1892-1976) and Robert J. Fulford (4) eradicated a large part of this accumulation (between them they fully catalogued all such material published before 1920), as things stand approximately 150,000 pieces of vocal music 1920-ca.1985 have minimal author/ title catalogue records (5), and an estimated 69,000 scores of instrumental pieces from the same period remain unlisted in any way. Figure 2 below provides a summary of the key aspects of the 'secondary' collection.

Broadly speaking, its contents fit one or more of the following categories: popular music (including musical theatre); music for children and learners; instrumental methods/ tutors; music for domestic performance; music for film and television; and arrangements. However, providing an overview of the content is complicated as apparently no systematic criteria were ever applied to identify what was to be relegated to the 'secondary' collection: rather it seems to have been dependant on the highly subjective views of whoever was responsible at any particular moment in time. This is borne out by the numerous examples of works of a similar nature, by the same composer, or even volumes from the same series, existing in both the main collection and the 'secondary' one.

The contents have never remained static either. Over time scores have been extracted from the sequence and fully catalogued, usually reflecting a change in attitude towards certain composers quickly adopted into the musical canon--the works of Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and The Beatles are all examples (6).

As well as the music dismissed on qualitative grounds, the collection appears to have also been used as a resting place for difficult formats (or 'odd bits that don't fit' as one box is labelled)--oversized chord charts and posters to aid learning of instruments; hand-produced booklets; educational playing cards; there is even a toy glockenspiel from the 1930s (7). In addition to these awkward artefacts, the condition of some of the material in the collection poses problems, with poor quality paper, mouldy sticky tape, and rusty paper clips featured prominently. Also interesting is the increase in low quality publications as the decades go on--including many photocopies of handwritten notation on scraps of tatty paper in the '60s and '70s boxes, reflecting increasingly democratised access to technologies that assist dissemination. …

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