Hidden corrections to Elgar score revealed during on-location digitisation project

Digitising at Birmingham Oratory

One of our cultural heritage photographers uncovered discarded draft sections to Elgar's score whilst digitising the original manuscript on location at Birmingham Oratory

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“As custodians of this invaluable Elgar manuscript, it’s a joy to open up access to it online. We were very impressed by Eugenio’s meticulous handling of the score and the two Newman manuscripts of the poem and are delighted with the final images.” Daniel Joyce, Librarian & Archivist, Birmingham Oratory

The problem

Considered quintessentially English, Sir Edward Elgar was one of the leading European composers of his generation. We were commissioned by the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS) to digitise an archive of Elgar’s handwritten musical scores and letters held at Birmingham Oratory.

The focal point of this project was The Dream of Gerontius composed by Elgar in 1900, set to text from the poem by St John Henry Newman. The original manuscript includes Elgar’s handwritten corrections and annotations.

Now over 100 years’ old, there has been limited access to the fragile manuscript. We were therefore commissioned to digitise the manuscript in order to open up access and enable public engagement with the work.

Digitisation workstation at Birmingham Oratory

The solution

Photographer, Eugenio Falcioni was despatched to Birmingham Oratory to digitise the manuscripts on location. He meticulously photographed every page without moving this precious archive off the premises.

The manuscript for The Dream of Gerontius had some pages where sheets of paper had been glued over parts of the original score, most likely to amend the musical text. Given the importance of Elgar’s original score, our client was fascinated in the part of the text that had been covered and requested us to find a way to allow them to read this.

Despite the limitations of being ‘on location’ rather than in our specialist studios, Eugenio was able to recover the obscured notations by back-lighting these pages and identifying the ink contained on the inner sides.

The outcome

The digitised manuscripts, including corrections and annotations, will be freely available to scholars via the NINS digital platform. Selected images will be curated for the British Library’s educational website Discovering Music. We hope that this resource will contribute to the knowledge of Elgar and his work.

Key points

  • We were commissioned by the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS), as part of a collaborative project with Oxford University and the British Library, to digitise an archive of Elgar's handwritten musical scores and letters held at the Birmingham Oratory.
  • NINS was conceived as a forum for exchanging ideas and discoveries about St John Henry Newman.
  • The Birmingham Oratory are custodians of invaluable Elgar manuscripts and scores including The Dream of Gerontius composed by Elgar in 1900, to tect from the poem by St John Henry Newman.
  • Our location photographer meticulously shot and processed every page in his pop-up photographic studio on-site at Birmingham Oratory.
  • By utilising our photography service, Birmingham Oratory benefited from our photographer’s expertise and state-of-the-art kit without the inherent risks of transporting such a fragile object.
  • By digitising this precious archive we have provided new insights into Elgar and opened up access to his work.

Case studies

…"We were delighted with the British Library service offering onsite photography at our convenience: it was efficient and enjoyable, and produced the most beautiful images." John Sunderland, Friends of Malmesbury Abbey…

Malmesbury and its Abbey, had one of the most important libraries in Europe in the Middle Ages, and the famous historian William was from Malmesbury. The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey commissioned the British Library to digitise four volumes of the bible, known as the Malmesbury Bible earlier this summer.

…This project makes a number of our most important globes available beyond the British Library’s Reading Rooms and exhibition galleries, to a wider audience and in a more imaginative way than ever before.…

Using 3D photography, the British Library’s rare and fragile collection of historical globes have been digitised and made available for the public to discover via augmented reality.