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Classical music: sound recordings

The British Library holds recordings of music in the western concert tradition, opera and liturgical music, and the pre-Baroque repertories of Western Europe. The collection includes commercial discs, tapes of BBC and other radio broadcasts, test pressings, and rare or unpublished recordings donated by composers and private collectors.

Yehudi Menuhin (photo: EMI Records)

Yehudi Menuhin (photo: EMI Records)


Commercial recordings

The Library holds tens of thousands of commercial recordings of classical music. Most UK record companies donate copies of their new releases and foreign labels are bought selectively: for example, the series Musique Française d'Aujourd'hui sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture with the SACEM Foundation and French-Radio; Musica Sveciae, an anthology of Swedish Music produced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in collaboration with leading Swedish record companies; and the Canberra School of Music's Anthology of Australian music on disc. Important donations of commercial discs have been made by the Czech, German, and Polish governments, the German Radio Lautarchiv, the Vienna Phonogramm-Archiv, the New York Public Library and many individual donors.

Listen to Jonathan Harvey's piece, 'Calling Across Time', commissioned by the British Library.

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Broadcast recordings

The British Library has made recordings of radio broadcasts for more than 30 years, many of them unique recordings that are not held anywhere else. In addition, we provide the only public access to the material held in the BBC Sound Archives. We hold most of the recordings issued by the BBC Transcription Service and a large collection of tapes donated by Voice of America which includes live performances by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera from the 1940s to the 1960s. Since the mid-1980s television programmes have also been preserved in increasing numbers.

Unpublished recordings

Many privately made recordings and test pressings have been donated. Important examples include John Ireland performing and talking about his music; the pianist Egon Petri recorded at his home and at Mills College, Oakland, California; a tape of Stravinsky trying out the revised version of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments with some Hollywood film studio musicians in January 1948; Peter Stadlen in the same year playing the Piano Variations Op.27 by Webern, with whom he studied the work when preparing for the first performance in 1937; and an extended interview with Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen recorded in January 1993. Notable private collections include those of the composers Elizabeth Maconchy and Elisabeth Lutyens and of performers such as Sir Alexander Gibson, Tamás Vásáry and Shura Cherkassky. The Sound Archive also provides access to BBC Sound Archives recordings.

Listen to Tolstoy's 'Waltz in F', his only known musical composition.

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Speech recordings

The collection holds speech and documentary programmes of all kinds. They include many tapes of talks and lectures given at the Sound Archive: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf discussing the work of her husband and record producer, Walter Legge; Yehudi Menuhin, Sándor Végh and Andor Foldes discussing Béla Bartók; reminiscences of the composers by Debussy's step-daughter and Prokofiev's son; Jonathan Harvey and Nigel Osborne giving accounts of working at IRCAM in Paris; and presentations and panels on such subjects as 'The art and science of transcending old records to LP', and 'The influence of the record industry on musical life today'. We have also recently recorded sixty interviews for an oral history of Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Listen to the French baritone Pierre Bernac talking about the composer Francis Poulenc.

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A large number of recordings, particularly of unpublished recordings, have been given to the Library by individual collectors, performers and researchers. Offers of material from all sources are welcome.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Jonathan Summers
Classical Music Curator
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7432
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441