Concert programmes are a primary source of information for historical and musicological research, but before 2004 they had never been documented at national or regional level in the UK and only rarely by holding institutions. Concert programmes represent the last major category of material relevant to music research that has not been subject to systematic treatment. They do not fall within the scope of other current resource discovery projects in music – notably the so-called ‘R’ projects: RILM (the literature of music), RISM (printed and manuscript sources of music), RIPM (music periodicals) and RIdIM (the iconography of music) – nor are they adequately covered by recent major descriptive projects in the performing arts (Cecilia and Backstage).
For many years researchers and librarians had been aware of the problems associated with locating concert programmes and have not been able to realize their full value, both in terms of scholarly research and collection development. Their potential value had been highlighted by the increasing importance of reception studies and histories of performance in musical scholarship. Concert programmes have thus become the focus of study as artefacts in their own right, as primary source materials for charting the emergence of repertories and the development of musical taste, as well as sources of information for more traditional approaches, such as institutional histories and the biography of composers and performers.
The value of programme information is demonstrated in projects such as Michael Musgrave’s The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace (Cambridge, 1995), Christina Bashford’s ‘Not Just “G.”: Towards a History of the Programme Note’, in George Grove, Music and Victorian Culture, ed. Michael Musgrave (London, 2003) and Robert Pascall’s ‘Brahms’s First Symphony Slow Movement: the Initial Performing Version’, The Musical Times, 122 (1981), 664–7.
In 2000 the Music Libraries Trust (MLT) drew up a list of projects considered as being of the greatest potential benefit to a wide range of library users. When graded in order of importance, a union catalogue of concert programme collections headed the list. A working party was formed under the MLT chair, Professor John Tyrrell. Through this group MLT commissioned a scoping study by Dr Rupert Ridgewell (British Library), which offered the first overview of concert programme collections in the UK and Ireland. The author consulted widely in the scholarly, library, and performance communities to produce a preliminary list of c.800 collections in 150 institutions. Collections range from long runs of programmes of major concert venues to individual items interspersed within otherwise unrelated archives.
The major holding institutions thus far identified are the RCM and the British Library, but collections are scattered across different sectors, in libraries, archives, museums and private collections. The RCM Centre for Performance History collection (now incorporated into the RCM Library) is unique for its breadth of coverage and currently holds some 600,000 items dating from 1780 to the present day, with programmes from 1064 venues in London alone. This important resource was almost entirely uncatalogued. The British Library also has substantial runs of inconsistently catalogued programmes received via Legal Deposit (though coverage here is patchy), together with miscellaneous collections received mainly through donation and extensive playbill collections from provincial venues throughout the UK. In view of its importance, MLT went on to publish an expanded version of the Rupert Ridgewell’s scoping study (Concert programmes in the UK & Ireland: a preliminary report, 2003. ISBN 0 95207 039 1). The Concert Programmes Project arose from recommendations in his report, endorsed by the working party.
The project intersects with at least one related endeavour. The Concert Life in Nineteenth-Century London Database differs from the Concert Programmes project in that takes a detailed view of a few carefully selected years of performance activity within the period 1800-1914, that it is confined to London, and that it draws upon a range of documents, of which concert programmes are one class among many.
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