Lute Manuscripts at Cambridge

My lute, currently on loan from the UK Lute Society – an 11-course instrument from later in the lute’s long history.

I spent quite a bit of my spare time during lockdown learning to play the lute. So naturally, I was excited when I discovered that Cambridge has some extraordinary lute manuscripts in its collection. I’ll highlight a few of the star pieces, but in particular I’d like to talk about a more recent, and lesser-known addition to the library’s lute manuscripts: the so-called ‘Medici’ lute manuscript. But first, a bit about the lute in general.

The lute was at the heart of European music-making for over 400 years. Sharing a common ancestor with the Arabic Oud, the European lute went through a series of developments in construction and tuning throughout the course of its long life. Essentially, extra strings were gradually added to the bass register, leading from the Medieval 4-course instrument—a course being a pair of strings tuned in unison or octaves—to the enormously complex 13-/14-course instruments of the high Baroque (example in the painting below).

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The changing face of the Anderson Room

If you want to know anything about the UL, Justin Burrows in Music is the person to ask. Our longest serving staff member, he’s a mine of information on the Anderson Room, and its changing look. Here he recalls a memorable day in its life.

The freedom of the open shelves. The Anderson Room in 1934.
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To celebrate, to commemorate: Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain, perhaps the greatest horn player of the 20thcentury, would have celebrated his 100th birthday back in May. Sadly and tragically, he died in a car accident on 1st September 1957 at the age of only 36 travelling back from a concert in Edinburgh. Benjamin Britten, in his tribute to Brain published in Tempo writes of “a musical gap which can never be filled. [The accident] has robbed us of an artist with the unique combination of a superb technical command of his instrument, great musicianship, a lively and intelligent interest in music of all sorts, and a fine performing temperament, coupled with a charming personality.”

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Women in music: the story continues

Since I last wrote about women in music on occasion of The Rising Tide exhibition, so much has happened. Alongside the many positive initiatives it is important to acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionally affected women and that as with so many things in life there will be new challenges to overcome. Today however I would like to focus on the small positive steps we are taking at our Music Collections to put women composers in the spotlight.

Soon to be catalogued sheet music by women composers from the Cambridge University Library Music Department’s collections
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Counting books at the Pendlebury

You’d be forgiven for wondering what everyone in the world of academic libraries are up to during the summer months. And while it is a quiet time when it comes to user numbers, there’s still always heaps to do, including preparation for the year ahead, as well as all the tasks that would be too disruptive to do at any other time of year. 

Perhaps the biggest of these is our annual shelf-check, which involves checking every item in the library’s collection one-by-one. As you might imagine, this is a big task and requires the whole team for an entire week. But it’s an important part of the yearly routine and helps keep the collection in good order, flagging up any lost, misplaced or damaged items. I’m sure we can all agree, it’s incredibly frustrating not being able to find something that says it should just be on the shelf, and the main aim of the shelf-check is to help prevent exactly that.

Because this is something that takes place behind closed doors, I thought perhaps people might like to know a little about what it is we’re up to.

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Happy Birthday!

It was announced earlier this week that the UK record industry exported nearly £520 million over the last year, second only to the USA in terms of music exports. It’s not altogether a happy story though, despite punching well above its weight as far as the recording industry is concerned, there were no British artists listed in the top 10 exports suggesting that although the technical base is strong, the musicians that feed the industry may be struggling in the UK (perhaps not too surprising after continuing cuts in funding both for musicians and music education).

This announcement happened to coincide with my own thoughts about the record industry. Lounging on a sunny day reading The mirror and the light, the last of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, while listening to some music that Thomas might have heard – John Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, commissioned by Cromwell’s former master, Cardinal Wolsey, I thought how lucky I was to live in a period when we can hear almost whatever we like, whenever, wherever, and however we like.

It turns out that today, June 18th, is a pretty important date for the recording industry too.

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Slow moments with SW: Samuel Barber, infinite sadness.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber – oh yes, you are thinking, he wrote that Adagio didn’t he. And you would be right, he did, and it has become the work of choice to play to mark solemn occasions and commemorations. And because we all know it, it’ll not feature in this little post. Instead we’ll explore some of the possibly lesser-known, yet delightful, corners of Barber’s output (I, for one, certainly can’t pretend to know a great deal of his work…shame on me). So let’s see what we can find.

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I’m Pergolesi!

I’m Spartacus!

There’s a famous scene towards the end of the film, Spartacus. The Spartan rebels have been rounded up, and told by a Roman General that they are about to die a particularly horrible death. There is a way out though, they just need to hand over the rebel leader, Spartacus. Immediately Spartacus hands himself in: “I’m Spartacus”. Big sigh of relief from the Romans, then…Spartacus’ best friend stands and says firmly “No, I’m Spartacus!” Soon every Spartan is on their feet, each loudly proclaiming that they are the genuine Spartacus.

I was reminded of this scene during a conversation on Twitter about Pergolesi, and the problem of getting hold of a score of his Miserere. It turned out that Pergolesi and Spartacus have rather more in common than you might think.

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Lots of New Acquisitions at the Pendlebury Library of Music

Here at the Pendlebury we’ve been busy adding heaps of fascinating new scores and recordings by composers who have historically been underrepresented in the world of classical music. This large influx of new material has been the exciting first step of a long-term plan to improve and diversify the music collections at Cambridge.

Composer Errollyn Wallen at a piano in Snape Maltings. By Ben Ramsden
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

The new scores encompass a wide range of compositional styles and backgrounds, and there’s just too many new items to list them all here, so I will only mention a handful of the main composers included in this effort and would encourage you to explore the new acquisitions further at your own leisure.

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Sarah: return to the Anderson Room

So, back again after another lockdown.

Everything the same, but different!? Same building, same office and desk, but only one other colleague instead of six.

It is so lovely to see “virtual” friends again and have a cup of tea not through a monitor or phone.

Our three Anderson Room and East Asian offices once again combined as one in our first proper tea break last Tuesday.

Working from home means sitting in front of my computer most of the day thinking mostly of one subject, (cataloguing MONYC cards…! Music Ordered Not Yet Catalogued).

But being able to have breaks in my garden with the birds chirping away around me.

Now that I’m back I can get back down into the music stacks again, the smell of books…! and think about book/box moves and different spaces I can find to enable this to happen.

Being back at work, I put it down to being a librarian. Do you think it’s “sad” when I let out a joyous cry when my first sheet of labels came out the printer or my first pile of books has been catalogued and put back on the table for the first time since coming back!!!? Ok yes a little sad maybe…! Plucking actual books off shelves and taking them to another department, walking through the library again.

I am so happy to be back, bring forth the day, soon, when we can all be back together as one!


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