An extraordinary story of classical music in Britain is enshrined in the RPS Collection at the British Library. Here, 200 years of scores, letters, significant papers and other artefacts - including, remarkably, a lock of Beethoven's hair! - are safely preserved.
The RPS Collection includes more than 270 volumes of manuscript scores. Most date from the 19th Century, from the extensive orchestral library gradually amassed by the Society from the its first years. Many parts have survived the wear-and-tear and passage of time but, with the co-operation of the Royal Academy of Music, a small number of the original sets have recently been placed alongside the scores.
The full score of Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, which the composer presented to the Society after giving the work’s premiere with us in 1829, is outstanding among the autograph manuscripts, but the collection also includes autographs by such lesser known nineteenth-century composers as Ignaz Pleyel, Sigismund Neukomm, Cipriani Potter as well as Luigi Cherubini, Louis Spohr and William Sterndale Bennett.
There is also a range of authoritative copyists' scores sent by composers when the RPS gave the world premiere or first British performances of works.
Central among these jewels is the score of the Ninth Symphony sent by Beethoven himself to the Society in 1824: it carries his autograph dedication to the society and the copyists’ work is liberally corrected in his hand throughout.
The remainder of the scores, the largest number, are contemporary copies prepared for use at the Society’s concerts. The scores in this category have great importance as a record of repertory and performance practice, giving the variant texts performed at the time, and often including the markings of the conductors for these early performances.
For much of the 19th Century, this library of scores was used more widely than for the Society’s own concerts; as a result of consultation by, and loans to, other musicians it played a direct role in the development of the classical repertory generally in Britain.
LETTERS AND PAPERS
At its heart of the RPS archive are the twenty 'minute books' recording preparations for each season of concerts as well as the membership and administration of the Society. A remarkable 47 volumes of original letters relate principally to the same matters, and include handwritten correspondence from most of the great European and British musical figures; among the many hundreds of writers are Albéniz, Bantock, Bax, Arthur Benjamin, Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Bruch, Busoni, Clementi, Coleridge-Taylor, Debussy, Delibes, Delius, Dvorak, Elgar, Gounod, Grieg, Holst, Kodaly, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, Rossini, Saint-Saens, Sibelius, Ethel Smyth, Spohr, Stainer, Stanford, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Tippett and Wagner. Other papers deal with such matters as the gift to the Society in 1871 of Schaller’s bust of Beethoven.
For more information about the RPS Collection, you are welcome to contact the music team at the British Library.