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Music collections: music manuscripts and archives

Among the British Library's collections are music manuscripts (and papers relating to music and musicians) dating from the middle ages to the present day.

John Taverner, Mass 'The western wynde'

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

Description of the collections

The earliest manuscript music in the collection comprises medieval songs and settings of the liturgy. From a slightly later period, English music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a particular strength. Sixteenth-century manuscripts include My Ladye Nevells Booke, a beautifully copied collection of keyboard pieces by William Byrd, dating from 1591. Autograph manuscripts from the seventeenth century include volumes of music by Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. In the Royal Music Library, we hold 97 volumes of autograph music by Handel, including his score of Messiah

Twentieth-century British musical autographs now form one of the largest elements of the collection. Among them are major collections of manuscripts of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Tippett, Britten, and Maxwell Davies. We have recently digitised all of our Britten manuscripts, and you can discover these 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 the digitised manuscripts by typing "zweig" into the Manuscript Number search box on Digitised Manuscripts.

Also in our music collection are archives of music publishers, including that of Novello, and the private papers of composers, performers and musicologists.

The Library actively collects new manuscripts and archives relating to music through bequests, donations and purchases.

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

Catalogues for music manuscripts and archives

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 5018-10018. Those manuscripts are at present listed only in printed catalogues.

In many cases, however, there are other sources (either printed or online) which give more detailed information about individual music manuscripts, including an item-by-item inventory of the contents. For details of these other catalogues and finding aids, please see Finding music - manuscript music and music archives.


Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751

E-mail: Ask the Music Reference Team