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Digital versions of two musical manuscripts released online

Digital versions of Handel’s Messiah and My Ladye Nevells Booke – a unique 16th-century volume of keyboard music by William Byrd, was launched online by the British Library at: www.bl.uk/turningthepages.

Turning the Pages uses three-dimensional animation which allows the viewer to mimic the action of turning each page on a computer screen. This technology enables viewers to magnify parts of the score, listen to audio clips of the music being viewed and discover more about the music and the composer.

Handel’s Messiah

Composed in the summer of 1741, Handel’s original Messiah manuscript is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures and the jewel in the crown of the music collections. Consisting of 280 pages, the handwritten draft score shows all the signs of rapid composition, with ‘short-cuts’ in notation, ink blots, and hasty cancellations and corrections.

Handel’s oratorio Messiah is one of the best known of all musical works. It was first performed in Dublin in 1742. Despite having a good reception there, it proved controversial in subsequent London performances because its sacred subject matter was thought unsuitable for performance in the theatre, a place associated by many with frivolity and profanity. Charity performances directed by the composer brought it back into favour, and began the popularity which continues today as evidenced by numerous modern recordings and performances.

Byrd’s My Ladye Nevells Booke

The lesser known My Ladye Nevells Booke contains 42 compositions by the great Elizabethan composer William Byrd and provides a tantalising glimpse of 16th-century musical life, when composers relied on wealthy patrons for their living. A scribe, John Baldwin, compiled the manuscript on Byrd’s behalf in 1591, in an elegant style quite unlike that of contemporary keyboard manuscripts. Byrd then apparently made some corrections before the manuscript was presented to Lady Nevell, recently identified as Elizabeth Nevell, wife of Sir Henry Nevell of Billingbear Park, Berkshire. The manuscript was recently acquired by the British Library from the Nevill family.

Byrd dedicated some of the pieces to Lady Nevell. He also included sets of variations on the popular tunes ‘Sellinger’s Round’ and ‘All in a Garden Green’, some fine pavans and galliards and ‘The Battell’ – a depiction in music of a battle between the English and the Irish.

Nicolas Bell, Curator of Music Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “For anyone discovering or re-visiting Handel’s most famous work in 2009 – the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death – this will provide a fascinating insight into his working methods. It’s also very exciting to be able to share with a worldwide audience My Ladye Nevells Booke, which is not only one of the most important music manuscripts to have survived from Elizabethan England, but also one of the most beautiful music manuscripts from any period.”

The original manuscripts of Messiah and My Ladye Nevells Booke can be seen on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library at St Pancras.

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