Curious music objects

Curious objects exhibition

Cambridge University Library: Curious objects exhibition

On the occasion of Cambridge University Library’s 600th anniversary exhibition on curious objects, I would like to introduce you to some of the music objects in our collections. As objects they may perhaps be not quite as unusual as some of the items on display in the exhibition, but each one of them comes with its own fascinating history and adds to the depth and variety of the music collections. The objects teach us about music, composition, performance, art, cultural and social history and the relations between the objects, music and the wider world.

Portrait of Haydn during one of his visits to London (artist unknown) together with a breast pin belonging to the composer. Both from the Marion Scott Archive at Cambridge University Library.

Portrait of Haydn during one of his visits to London (artist unknown) together with a breast pin belonging to the composer.

The Marion Scott Haydn collection contains not only a fantastic selection of early printed Haydn editions but also various Haydn memorabilia including medals, contemporary engravings and a unique small watercolour made when Haydn was visiting England. Most notable is the banded-agate breast pin with a device of Apollo’s lyre engraved between two dolphins and a bull. Haydn presented this pin to his pupil Neukomm, who gave it to a Mrs. Lloyd of Dublin, who passed it on to Sir Robert Stewart from whom it was acquired by Marion Scott who subsequently bequeathed it to Cambridge University Library.

A selection of object from Bliss's workdesk

A selection of objects from the Arthur Bliss Archive

The objects in the Arthur Bliss Archive are very closely connected to music and musical life. Two boxes of items from Bliss’s worktable together with photographic evidence enable us to recreate this important aspect of his working environment almost entirely as it was in 1975. The worktable has been reconstructed twice so far, once for the 1985 University Library Bliss exhibition and again this year on occasion of the Bliss 125 anniversary corridor exhibition. Whilst the worktable evokes Arthur Bliss as a composer, 3 batons in the archive connect us to Bliss as a conductor at the heart of British musical life.

The William Alwyn Archive contains quite a significant range of objects, including Alwyn’s baton and flute and a collection of pastels, paintings and cartoons, documenting Alwyn not only as conductor, performer and composer but also as a painter. The flute as an object, an original Carte 1867 system flute, has particular significance for William Alwyn. He started playing the piccolo when he was 8 years old and later went on to study the flute at the Royal Academy of Music. One of the highlights of his career as a flautist was working with the London Symphony Orchestra. His compositions for the flute are exquisite and range from a now lost juvenilia Sparkling Cascades to his 1980 flute concerto. Some of his beautiful chamber music pieces were performed earlier this week at a concert at Cambridge University Library.

Programme for the 2014 Festival. Background is based on a pastel by William Alwyn.

Programme for the 2014 Festival, based on a pastel by William Alwyn.

Painting and drawing was for William Alwyn another way of expressing his creativity: “some things you can only say in music (sounds), some things you can only say in visuals, and some things you can only say in words. The desire to express is fundamental to my existence, but expression in the abstract terms of music is not always fully satisfactory” (Radio Orwell interview, 26 March 1979 as quoted in Composing in words (UL copy at M501.c.200.106)).

A selection of ephemera from the Coates-LLoyed archive

A selection of ephemera from the Coates-Lloyd Archive


A paper-based selection of objects can be found in the Coates-Lloyd archive which contains a vast collection of ephemera, from certificates of posting to ration books, travel tickets, menus, passports and much more. Originally it included a piece of actual wedding cake but unfortunately, unlike the ectoplasm on display in the Curious Objects exhibition, we have not been able to preserve this.


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