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Royal Music Library - origins (to 1727)

Music played an important part in the Tudor and Stuart royal households, but the manuscripts which survive from this time were not kept in a separate music library. The music manuscripts of Henry VIII which have reached the British Library are preserved in other collections. One manuscript of music by the viol player John Coprario bears the arms of Charles I, and seems to be the only book in the Royal Music Library today for which we can state such an early royal provenance (it may even have been bound for James VI and I earlier in the 17th century).

Binding of a volume of instrumental fantasias by Coperario

Binding of a volume of instrumental fantasias by Coperario with the arms of Charles I. The British Library, R.M.20.k.3. Copyright © The British Library Board

The first time that we can observe a consciously conceived and substantial collection of music manuscripts forming part of the Royal collections was in 1714, with the arrival of the Elector of Hanover on the British throne as King George I. George I brought with him, in all probability, a substantial collection of nearly 50 autograph and copyists' scores of the music of Agostino Steffani, who was court composer in Hanover. Steffani lived from 1654 to 1728 and had a very important role in the development of opera. He was a highly favoured character within court circles for more than just his abilities as a composer - he was for a time Bishop of Spiga in Asia Minor, and then was made Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany - but his musical significance is nevertheless considerable.

All of the music by Steffani in the Royal Music Library dates from 1689-97, the time of the Electorship of Ernst August, father of George I. There are many autograph manuscripts, chiefly of operas but also of vocal duets, for which he was particularly renowned, all of them bound in a thin leather covering decorated with pinwheel designs; and a substantial collection of scores made by professional copyists, all of them in heavy leather bindings with a gold imprint on the front cover of a leaping horse (or 'springendes Pferd', the emblem of Lower Saxony) and sometimes on the back cover also a wild man:

Binder's stamps from the covers of operas by Steffani

Binder's stamps from the covers of operas by Steffani. The British Library, R.M.23.h.12-13. Copyright © The British Library Board

Binder's stamps from the covers of operas by Steffani

Binder's stamps from the covers of operas by Steffani. The British Library, R.M.23.h.12-13. Copyright © The British Library Board

Contact

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

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

E-mail: music-collections@bl.uk