Royal Music Library

Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah
Draft score of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah. R.M.20.f.2, f 100r

Printed and manuscript music scores collected by several generations of the royal household. Among the many treasures are almost all of the British Library’s holdings of Handel’s autograph manuscripts, and scores by Purcell, Mendelssohn and J.C. Bach.

About the collection

The Royal Music Library contains about 1,000 volumes of manuscript music and 4,500 volumes of printed music, dating from the late-16th to the early-20th centuries. As a collection, it is partly a reflection of the musical tastes of the successive members of the royal household. While its foundation as a separate entity can be credited to George III, its contents draw in part on a longer tradition of royal music collecting, from music by John Coprario bound in the personal arms of Charles I (R.M.24.k.3.) through to items originally in the library formed by Queen Caroline in 1737. 

The collection also reflects personal connections between composers and royalty, including:

  • autograph scores of J.C. Bach, music master to Queen Charlotte from 1763 to 1782 (R.M.22.a.11-20)
  • a piano-duet arrangement by Felix Mendelssohn of some of his Lieder ohne Worte, made and copied out especially for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (R.M.21.f.24)

In 1957, 200 years after the donation of the Old Royal Library to the British Museum (which itself contained music connected to earlier monarchs), Queen Elizabeth II presented the Royal Music Library to the British Museum, and to the nation. The collection is now housed at the British Library.

Highlights include:                                                                                                     

  • 97 volumes of Handel’s autograph manuscripts (R.M.20.a.1- R.M.20.h.7)
  • autograph manuscript of anthems and songs by Purcell (R.M.20.h.8)
  • autograph scores of works by Agostino Steffani, probably brought by George I from Hanover where Steffani was court composer
  • the 'Cosyn' and 'Forster' virginal books (R.M.23.l.4 and R.M.23.d.3)

What is available online?

Printed music from the Royal Music Library is described in the main online catalogue, Explore the British Library.

Manuscript music from the Royal Music Library is described in the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. A handlist of the manuscripts is available here.

The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts web-pages include images of manuscripts from the Royal Music Library, including all of the Handel and Purcell autograph scores.

A complete list of digitised music manuscripts (including those from the Royal Music Library) is published quarterly on the British Library Music Blog

Images of medieval music manuscripts from earlier royal collections can often be found on the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM).

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Royal Music Library collection is available to view in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. Descriptions can be found via the catalogues mentioned above. Items can be ordered via Explore the British Library.

Please note that access restrictions apply to some of our most vulnerable and important manuscripts, including a number from the Royal Music Library (noted under ‘Access conditions’ in online catalogue descriptions). In these cases, researchers are asked to consult a digital or microfilm surrogate in the first instance; access to original material should be made by application in advance.

For more information, please contact the Music Reference Service

Further information

William Barclay Squire, Catalogue of the King's Music Library, I, The Handel Manuscripts (London, 1927); II, The Miscellaneous Manuscripts, by H. Andrews (1929); III, Printed Music and Musical Literature (1929)

Donald Burrows, 'The Royal Music Library and its Handel Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2009)

Peggy Daub, 'Queen Caroline of England's Music Library', in Music Publishing and Collecting: Essays in Honor of Donald W. Krummel (Urbana, Illinois, 1994), pp. 131-165

Alec Hyatt King, 'English Royal Music-lovers and their Library, 1600-1900', The Musical Times 99 (1958), pp. 311-313

Alec Hyatt King, 'The Royal Music Library: Some Account of its Provenance and Associations', The Book Collector 7 (1958), pp. 241-252

Alec Hyatt King, 'The Royal Music Library in the British Museum', in Beiträge zur Musikdokumentation: Franz Grasberger zum 60. Geburtstag (Tutzing, 1975), pp. 193-201

Alec Hyatt King, 'Frederick Nicolay, Chrysander and the Royal Music Library', in Musical Pursuits: British Library Occasional Papers 9 (London, 1987), pp. 107-118

Margaret Laurie, 'The Chapel Royal Partbooks', in Music and Bibliography: Essays in Honour of Alec Hyatt King, ed. Oliver Neighbour (London, 1980), pp. 28-50


For further information, please contact: 

Music Collections  
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom
T: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Email: Ask the Reference Team

 

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