How to find music manuscripts and music archives in the British Library catalogues.
Composers' thematic catalogues
For the major composers, the first place to start when looking for music manuscripts will not be the British Library's own catalogues, but a published thematic catalogue devoted to that composer. This will generally give library locations and manuscript numbers for the composer's principal manuscripts. The composer bibliographies in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians include thematic catalogues where these are available. Our composer resources pages list those available on the reference shelves at the British Library.
A description of most music manuscripts and collections of musicians' letters and papers held by the British Library may be found in the online Manuscripts Catalogue. Please note that for anthology volumes of music acquired more than fifty years ago this will often be just a short description of the manuscript as a whole, and not an index of individual composers or pieces of music named in the manuscript.
Manuscripts dating from between 1600 and 1800 are generally described in more detail in the RISM music manuscripts database.
Please see below for other catalogues for manuscript music not available online.
The online Manuscripts Catalogue is a data-conversion of The Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts, a cumulative catalogue published originally in book form. For this reason, it has two separately-searchable components. The Index is an index of names, comparable with the index at the back of a book. This Index contains hyperlinks to the 'Descriptions' (the equivalent of the main body of the book) where the manuscripts themselves are described.
You can search the Index for a composer's name, or you can make a free-text search of the Descriptions for particular words. You cannot search the Index and Descriptions at the same time.
It is always advisable to use the Index Search when looking for music by particular composers, as the older Descriptions of some manuscripts are very short and may not include all the names that appear in the corresponding index entries for that manuscript. For instance, a Description might simply read 'Collection of anthems, in score', whereas the Index may give the names of all those composers who contributed to it.
To make an Index Search for manuscripts containing works by Henry Purcell, for instance, you can enter 'purcell' in Name, and 'henry' in Additional name. This brings up links to the Descriptions for numerous manuscripts. The results of the Index Search don't generally show individual work titles, but just general headings such as 'Anthems, songs etc.' By following the link to the Description, you can read a more detailed account of the manuscript.
To make a Descriptions Search, simply enter a word in the freetext search box. Entering the name 'elgar' will bring up all the manuscripts with that name in the Description. Entering 'promenade near concerts' will bring up Descriptions containing both words.
As mentioned above, the online Manuscripts Catalogue has two separately-searchable components. The Index is an index of names, comparable with the index of a book. It contains hyperlinks to the 'Descriptions', where the manuscripts themselves are described.
It is important to use the Index Search and not Description Search when looking for papers and letters relating to specific people, as they may not all be named in the Description, which could simply read 'Correspondence between John Smith and a number of musicians'.
To make an Index Search for letters to or from Sir Adrian Boult, for example, type 'boult' in Name and 'adrian' in Additional name. This will bring up a long list of results, each with a link to the Brief Description of the overall volume. From the Brief Description page, the 'Find index references' link will bring up a list of all the people whose correspondence is found in that volume of letters.
The most detailed catalogue for the bulk of the Library's manuscript music collection is:
Augustus Hughes-Hughes, Catalogue of manuscript music in the British Museum (3 vols. London, 1906-9, reprinted 1964-6).
This catalogue includes detailed inventories of all music manuscripts acquired by the British Library's forerunner, the British Museum Library, before 1908. It encompasses all Additional manuscripts with numbers lower than Add. MS 37772 and Egerton manuscripts with numbers lower than Eg. 2888, together with the few music manuscripts in the series Arundel, Burney, Cotton, Harley, King's, Lansdowne, Royal MSS, Sloane and Stowe. (See below for an explanation of the numbering system.)
The Hughes-Hughes catalogue has full indexes of names, titles and first lines of vocal pieces, and provides much more detail about individual works within manuscripts than the online Manuscripts Catalogue. (This is because the online Manuscripts Catalogue is a data-conversion of the general cumulative catalogue of the Library's manuscripts, the Catalogue of Additions, which until the 1950s did not include detailed inventories of music manuscripts.)
The Hughes-Hughes catalogue is not yet available online. If you cannot easily gain access to a copy in a library, our enquiry team will be pleased to check it on your behalf for particular works or composers.
For music manuscripts compiled between 1600 and 1800, another useful source is the RISM music manuscripts database. Although not yet complete, this national catalogue of music manuscripts includes descriptions of a large proportion of the British Library's music manuscripts dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Music manuscripts received by the Library after the publication of Hughes-Hughes's catalogue continued to be listed in the Catalogue of Additions (now the online Manuscripts Catalogue). Those received between 1908 and 1967 were also listed in:
Pamela J. Willetts, Handlist of music manuscripts acquired 1908-67 (London, 1970).
This list is generally less detailed than the online Manuscripts Catalogue. It is useful, however, in that it includes a list of music manuscripts that were then held separately from the main collection as part of the Department of Printed Books. Details of these are gradually being added to the online Manuscripts Catalogue, but they are not yet all listed there. As with the Hughes-Hughes catalogue, library staff can make a search of this list on your behalf.
Pamela Willetts's handlist also includes a list of manuscripts that were placed on loan with the Library at the time of its publication. Summary index entries for all current loans are available through the online Manuscripts Catalogue. Full details of all current loans are available through in-house typescripts in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.
Music manuscripts acquired since 1956 (Add. MS 49196 onwards and MS Mus. 1 onwards) are catalogued fully on the online Manuscripts Catalogue.
There are also separate catalogues for the special named collections, the Hirsch, Royal Music Library and Zweig collections.
The manuscripts held by the British Library comprise a series of named collections that have been acquired over the history of the British Museum and the Library. There are music manuscripts in many of the series, the largest being the Additional Manuscripts, so-called because they were 'additional' to the original Cotton, Harley and Sloane collections with which the library was formed in the 18th century. Over the centuries, each Additional manuscript received was simply given the next available number, no matter whether it was a historical, literary or musical manuscript.
As well as these mixed-subject named collections, there are a few named collections which are devoted entirely, or in a large part, to music: the Royal Music Library, the Hirsch Collection, the Zweig Collection and the Royal Philharmonic Society Archive.
In 1995, a new sequence, MS Mus., was formed specially for newly-acquired music manuscripts, and since then each new music manuscript received has been given the next available MS Mus. number and not an Additional number.
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