Music manuscripts and archives overview

John Taverner, Mass 'The western wynde'Add. 17803, ff. 23v-24r

We hold a world-class collection of music manuscripts dating from the middle ages to the present day.

About the collection

The collection includes medieval songs and settings of the liturgy, which are the earliest manuscript music in the collection; English music of the 16th and 17th centuries; Sixteenth-century manuscripts, including My Ladye Nevells Booke; a beautifully-copied collection of keyboard pieces by William Byrd, dating from 1591. Autograph manuscripts from the 17th century include volumes of music by Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. The 'Royal Music Library' holds 97 volumes of autograph music by Handel, including his score of Messiah.

We also have archives of music publishers, including that of Novello, and the private papers of composers, performers and musicologists.

We collect new manuscripts and archives relating to music through bequests, donations and purchases.

The Library's music manuscripts are all described in Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts aside from manuscripts in the Additional Manuscripts category with numbers between Add. MS 5018 and 10018. Those manuscripts are only listed in printed catalogues.

In many cases there are other sources (either printed or online) giving more detailed information about individual music manuscripts, including an item-by-item inventory of the contents.

20th-century British musical autographs form one of the largest elements of the collection. Among these are major collections of manuscripts of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Tippett, Britten, and Maxwell Davies.

What is available online?

We have digitised all of our Britten manuscripts, which you can find by searching for 'britten' on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

The British Library's music collection also includes the autograph manuscripts of many important European composers, notably the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and music by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner. Many of these form part of the Zweig Collection. This collection is currently being digitised. You can find them by typing 'zweig' into the search box on Digitised Manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Music manuscripts dating from before the year 1500 are consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Those dating from 1500 onwards are generally made available in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

Further information

Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

T: +44 (0)20 7412 7772

Email: Ask the Reference Team

How to guides

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

Get a Reader Pass

A guide to how to obtain a British Library Reader Pass to use our Reading Rooms