Classical music recordings

Metropolitan Opera House
Josef Hofmann at the Metropolitan Opera House New York.

We have recordings of music in the western concert tradition, opera and liturgical music, and the pre-Baroque repertories of Western Europe.

About the collection

Our collection includes commercial discs, tapes of BBC and other radio broadcasts, test pressings, and rare or unpublished recordings donated by composers and private collectors.

Commercial recordings

We hold tens of thousands of commercial recordings of classical music. Many UK record companies donate copies of their new releases and foreign labels are bought selectively: for example, specialist historical re-issue labels of great interpreters of the past from the United States such as Marston, VAI, Music & Arts, as well as many from Japan.  From Europe recordings from the Salzburg Festival on the Orfeo label, German radio recordings on Audite and specialist contemporary music labels such as Mode, Wergo and Hat Hut.

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.

Broadcast recordings

We have made recordings of radio broadcasts from 1962-2000, 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. In the last few decades a number of substantial collections of broadcast material have been donated including the White collection (C1026), Schuler collection (C943), Leech collection (C738) and Cooban collection (C1398). From the mid-1980s until 2000, television programmes were also selectively recorded and preserved.

Unpublished recordings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; Peter Stadlen in 1948 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 Hugh Davies, Matyas Seiber, Elizabeth Maconchy and Elisabeth Lutyens and of performers such as Sir Alexander Gibson, Philip Fowke, Tamás Vásáry, Shura Cherkassky and Derek Collier.

Speech recordings

The collection holds speech and documentary programmes of all kinds, including 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 as well as of Busoni by Edward Weiss.

Between 1991 and 1997 the Library recorded interviews for an oral history of Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

What is available online?

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 major works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart and Chopin in recordings made before 1958 are available.  There is also a specialist collection of rare early chamber music recordings made mostly before the First World War, experimental music by composer Hugh Davies, the documented career of British violinist Derek Collier, an Oral History of Glyndebourne Festival Opera and cylinders apparently recorded by violinist August Wilhelmj.

The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

You can also use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

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 also be accessed in Boston Spa.

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.

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


Follow on Twitter: @BL_Classical


Edison Fellowships

We offer fellowships to encourage the study of classical music sound recordings

All projects

Case studies

More Case studies
…The research I did as an Edison Fellow at the British Library was invaluable for my PhD…

Alexis Bennett researched 1930s British film music as an Edison Fellow at the British Library.

…My work as an Edison Fellow has profoundly changed my thoughts on music making…

Pianist Marisa Gupta uses historical sound recordings to inform her chamber music performances.