Tag Archives: musicians

Centenary of a Wunderkind

Yehudi Menuhin in 1943While processing the thousands of newspaper cuttings in the basement of Westminster Music Library, the distinctive styles and peculiarities of the great music critics of the 1920s and ’30s start to become apparent: their dry sarcasm, or the ill-concealed pleasure with which they denounce an earnest young singer’s German pronunciation. Yet as much as the critics loved to criticise, there was one kind of performer unfailingly met with much interest and enthusiasm: the child prodigy.

Scarcely a week went by without a new “Boy Wonder”, “Infant Genius”, or “Rising Star” headline in the music column, accompanied by a positive review and encouraging wishes for the child’s future. Was it the end of the Great War and the promise of a bright, peaceful age to come which led the papers to invest so much hope in these children? Unfortunately good wishes can only propel musical success so far, and more often than not these promising young talents collapsed under the pressure of constant touring and performing – not to mention the ten-hour practice regime imposed by their unflinchingly strict parents.

Yehudi Menuhin with Bruno Walter in December 1931By 1929, the most cynical London concert-goers probably paid scant attention to the papers advertising the London debut of “Another Infant Prodigy” (Evening Standard, 02/11/1929) by the name of Yehudi Menuhin, highlights of whose American career already included concertos with the San Francisco- and New York- Symphony Orchestras. Yet the flurry of reviews which followed this 13-year-old’s London premiere (Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra) soon silenced the doubters.

“Boy Prodigy’s Coolness” (Daily Mail), “Wonder Boy Violinist” (Daily Chronicle), “A Violin Prodigy” (The Observer), read the papers, as they fought to heap the most praise on the short-trousered genius who had so impressed them the previous night.

Yehudi Menuhin headline from the Daily Mail, 8 December 1930Others sought a different angle: “Women Mob Boy Violinist”, read the Daily Mail following a different concert, and in a later edition the headline tantalising speculated, “What Will He Do When a Man?”

What indeed? We can now look back and answer that prophetic voice – “Much!” Yehudi Menuhin, far from being the one-hit wonder many may have expected, has become a household name. Known now not only as violinist, but also conductor, educator and philanthropist, his achievements are innumerable. He has, for much of the last century, ranked amongst the finest and most famous of professional musicians. It is certainly a remarkable and fascinating experience to survey Westminster Music Library’s collection of newspaper cuttings and read how Menuhin – the man who needs no introduction – was introduced.

Yehudi Menuhin display at Westminster Music Library, April 2016

As you would expect given Menuhin’s fame and success, Westminster Music Library’s collection is rich in Menuhin biographies, texts and journal articles. Since this year – today, in fact – marks 100 years since the violinist’s birth, we are currently exhibiting our collection in a large and detailed display created  by Senior Library Assistant Andrew. Come in and read about Menuhin’s fascinating life and career, explore Oxford Music Online or discover what all the fuss is about by listening to one of his famous recordings courtesy of Westminster Libraries’ free online resource – Naxos Music Library (log in to the online reosurces with your library card number).

Yehudi Menuhin display at Westminster Music Library, April 2016

You can also look at the hundreds of original newspaper articles in Westminster Music Library which span much of his career, but be prepared to set aside enough time, they truly are a vast and absorbing treasure trove of information.



Hold the front page

Edwin Evans, painted by Princess Mary Eristoff in 1916One of Westminster Music Library’s lesser-known – but, in my opinion, most fascinating – collections is the vast archive of newspaper cuttings which occupies an entire wall of the library’s basement store.

The collection is the handiwork of music critic Edwin Evans, and, alongside his many thousands of music scores and books, it formed the basis of Westminster Music Library (or, as it was then known, Central Music Library) shortly after his death in 1945.

While we refer to the collection as our “newspaper cuttings”, the archive in fact contains much more, and it is no small task to attempt to describe the contents of these hundreds of boxes. There are weighty concert programmes, and beautifully-designed promotional posters advertising many a long-forgotten soloist’s recital at one of London’s finest venues: Wigmore Hall, perhaps, or Cadogan Hall.

There are also, of course, the newspaper cuttings, gathered primarily between the years of 1920 and 1940, and these certainly do make up the bulk of the collection. We have cuttings from the ‘household names’ of the British press, such as the Times, Guardian and Daily Mail, alongside international publications like the New York Times. Regional papers, too, are represented, with the Sheffield Telegraph and Glasgow Herald making not infrequent appearances. It was common practice then for even these local papers to send journalists down to London for all the major events in the music world, for the benefit of their readership who presumably needed to know if it was worth their time and money making the trip to see Covent Garden’s newest production. Finally, we have thousands of cuttings from newspapers which have sadly not survived into the 21st century. The Pall Mall Gazette (an ancestor of today’s Evening Standard), Morning Post and Daily Chronicle will be unfamiliar to many, but are preserved in great quantity in our newspaper cuttings collection.

Sample from Westminster Music Library's newspaper cuttings collection

The articles saved from these newspapers vary in subject, but can be broadly divided into: Concert reviews, Concert announcements, Book reviews, Academic writings, and Obituaries. There are many exceptions to this rule, however, and the only real way to get a sense of what’s contained is to spend an hour or two rummaging. The time is well spent, though: one marvels at the care taken by one man to collect and then individually ‘process’ these thousands of items. Each cutting would be mounted on a piece of blotting paper, with the provenance (the name of the paper and the date of publication) lightly pencilled above, and only then would it be filed away under its relevant category.

Westminster Music Library's newspaper cuttings collection

Mr Evans’ filing system was a simple one (he was an avid collector, but never a librarian!), but is generally fit for purpose. The vast majority of folders simply have a name written on them, and the folder will contain all the relevant cuttings for that person. For most enquiries, this is perfectly adequate: someone wishing to research Puccini’s Madame Butterfly could simply turn to the ‘Puccini’ folder and begin browsing. The difficulty lies in more specific enquiries. A researcher wanting to read press opinions on the Royal Opera House’s 1922 production of Madame Butterfly would draw a blank hunting through the ‘Puccini’ folder; likewise, ‘Royal Opera House’ would yield no results. Only with the knowledge that a Miss Maggie Teyte sang the title role in this production would the researcher find what they were looking for. Turn to the ‘Maggie Teyte’ folder, and there are no fewer than seven independent reviews of the opening night of this particular production.

Difficulties in locating relevant material in part contribute to our desire to digitise the entire collection. Our vision is for a fully searchable online archive, whereby users could locate relevant cuttings by simply searching for key words; so, in the example above, not only would ‘Maggie Teyte’ bring up the required information, but so would ‘Puccini’, ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Royal Opera House’, ‘Covent Garden’… and the list goes on! The advantages of this system are endless, and it is our hope that a digitised collection will allow much easier access to our incredibly valuable archive of information. The collection is staggering in size and detail, and to make it more easily searchable and accessible to users would be an achievement of endless potential for researchers and musicians.

Westminster Music Library's newspaper cuttings collection

The ambitiousness of this project must not be underestimated. We cannot tell exactly how many items are contained in this collection, but a simple calculation would suggest:

95 boxes of approximately 460 items each = roughly 43,700 items

The sheer size of this collection is staggering, especially given that this represents only twenty years of press. Evans ceased collecting around 1940, and my theory is that the outbreak of World War II and its subsequent paper rationing had much to do with his decision to stop. Not only did the volume of papers being published fall dramatically, but hoarding of paper would not have been viewed favourably in light of the war effort. The prospect of how large this collection would be had it been continued after the War is tantalising, but it was not to be – Evans died in 1945, just two months short of VE Day.

We are in very early stages of the digitising process, and my task for the next few months is that of data gathering. To be sure that our collection has sufficiently relevant and interesting cuttings, I have been compiling a list of every “subject” – that is, every folder title which Edwin Evans used to store cuttings referring to the same person. These folders contain a minimum of one cutting each (my all-time favourite horn player, Aubrey Brain, has just one cutting in his folder), although most contain around ten, and some, like the folder for ‘the Bach Choir’, contain upwards of a hundred individual items. With these subjects I have also been recording basic pieces of information: whether the subject is a Performer, Composer, or ‘Other’ (these can be anything from festivals to librettists); the subject’s gender; if a Performer, the subject’s instrument; and, significantly, if the subject has their own entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

There is a long way to go in this data gathering process, but readers may perhaps be interested in some statistics gathered so far:

  • A significant majority (66%) of subjects are Performers. Of these Performers,
  • 34% are singers
  • 31% are pianists
  • 19% are string players
  • 8% are conductors
  • 6% are ensembles
  • Just 5% are wind players of any sort!
  • Composers represent 29% of subjects, while “Others” come in at just 5%.
  • 62% of all entries are Male, 31% Female (the remaining 7% accounts for non-individuals such as ensembles and festivals)
  • 40% of all subjects are featured in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Westminster Music Library's newspaper cuttings collectionTo a researcher in music, this last point is an exciting prospect. It indicates that 60% of the subjects included in our collection are in all likelihood under-represented in terms of source material for research. Greater accessibility of our cuttings through digitising would therefore be a massive, and certainly unique, contribution to the further study of these individuals.

Our project is in its very early stages, but we are excited to be investigating this fascinating resource. All our press cuttings are available for reference to our library customers, so don’t wait until they’re available digitally – please visit Westminster Music Library and we’ll be happy to give you access to this amazing collection.