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Concert programmes are a primary source of information for historical and musicological research, but they have 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, RISM, RIPM and RIdIM – nor are they adequately covered by recent major descriptive projects in the performing arts (Cecilia and Backstage).

For many years researchers and librarians have 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 has 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’, 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 programmes 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 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 remains 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 arises 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. 

Project Aims and Objectives

The sheer number of individual programmes means that creating a union catalogue at item level is not a viable option in the short or medium term. Instead, the Concert Programmes Project aims to create an online database of concert programme holdings in the UK and Ireland at collection level to enable scholars to locate material relevant to their research and library professionals to identify priorities for collection development and preservation. This level of access is provided by the Collection Level Description metadata scheme developed by the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) and already adopted by Cecilia, an online guide to music collections in archives, libraries and museums in the UK and Ireland. The schema, with some enhanced functionality, has been adopted by the Concert Programmes online database.

The first phase of the project was undertaken between 2004 and 2007, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and with the following aims:

The first phase was jointly hosted by Cardiff University and the Royal College of Music, and led by Professors John Tyrrell (Cardiff) and Paul Banks (RCM). 

Project Manager: Dr Rupert Ridgewell (British Library). 

Research Assistants: Deborah Lee and Dr Ian Taylor (London and Oxford)

Researchers: Catherine Ferris (Dublin), Erin McPhee (Edinburgh), Rachel Milestone (Leeds, Bradford, Manchester), Ben Pinnow (Cardiff), and John Gough (Birmingham).  

This project would not have been possible without the support and advice of numerous individuals, including members of the CPP Advisory Committee (Chris Banks, Prof. Christina Bashford, Lewis Foreman and Prof. Simon McVeigh), Paula Best, Almut Boehme, Mark Brawn, Dr. Jenny Doctor, Ros Edwards, Judi Gladwell, James Grimster, Alison Hall, Gillian Jones, Nick Poole, Libby Rice, Peter Ward Jones, Susi Woodhouse, and members of the IAML Working Group on Access to Performance Ephemera. 

For further information, please contact [email protected].


Cardif University (Prifysgol Caerdydd)Royal College of Music LondonMuseums, Libraries and Archives Council