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Radio recordings: classical music

Music programming, live and recorded, has been a mainstay of British radio since its inception and constitutes a substantial proportion of the Library’s audio collections.

The importance of western classical and light orchestral music to British radio was reflected in the BBC's assumption of the role of organiser/sponsor to the Proms in 1927, and in the establishment of the BBC's own national and regional performing ensembles, notably the BBC Symphony Orchestra, preserved in concert and studio performances since the early 1930s. These include hundreds of premier performances and specially-commissioned works, many never released on record. Some of the earliest and rarest will be found in the K. H. Leech Collection (1935-early 1960s), which pays particular attention to the work of British composers. The baton was then picked up by the British Library's off-air recording project which recorded key music programmes from 1963 through to the end of the century.

Many of the UK's major classical music and opera festivals are extensively documented:

  • Proms (early 1930s-)
  • Glyndebourne (1936-)
  • Edinburgh International (1940s-)
  • Royal Opera House
  • Aldeburgh (1948-)
  • Cheltenham (1953-)
  • Bath (1962-)
  • York Early Music (early 1980s-)

Most of Britain's great national and regional ensembles and conductors, and many of the most celebrated from overseas are represented in these recordings, often allowing students to trace the development of performance practice and interpretation from an unpublished broadcast premier through to the most recently published versions on CD.

The concert performances are accompanied by a large collection of church and choral music from series such as Choral Evensong. The Brian Head Collection adds fifty years of broadcast performances by King's College (Cambridge) Chapel Choir (1953-).  

Hundreds of editions of Radio 3's groundbreaking Music in Our Time (1965-) used the recording studio to facilitate the performance of contemporary works which would sometimes have been impossible to realise in a concert setting. New music and electroacoustic ensembles also figure prominently in the Michael Gerzon (catalogue no: C236) and Hugh Davies (catalogue no: C1193) collections, both of which favour Stockhausen and his contemporaries. Others were originated and deposited by performers (Sir Charles Mackerras, Tamás Vásáry, Edna Iles), radio stations and producers (Capital Radio, Alan Walker), scholars and collectors (Schüler, Trevor White).

Orchestral, chamber music and solo recitals also feature in our North American radio collections, notably the U.S. Voice of America Tapes (catalogue no: C50), which include many unpublished recordings of the New York Philharmonic; and the Canadian (CBC and RCI) transcription discs. The Stuart Pollard Collection (catalogue no: C353) brings together both American and British broadcasts of the 1950s, while Gerzon also documents U.S. station WKCR's epic 1984 La Monte Young Festival, which aired many previously unheard works by the minimalist pioneer.

Complementing and illuminating the music programming, much erudite musical analysis and discussion is to be found in series such as Antony Hopkins' Talking About Music (1961-), and Michael Oliver's Music Weekly (1973-). While many of these are detailed in our online catalogue, visiting users will also wish to consult the BBC Sound Archive and Transcription Service collections, where many post-1940s concert recordings and feature programmes are to be found.

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

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441