Explore Your Archives at the Library of Birmingham

Blue Celebrated

Explore Your Archive Week has arrived and we are honoured to have Val Birchall, Assistant Director, Culture and Visitor Economy, write our first blog of the week:

My favourite thing in Archives & Collections, Val Birchall


My favourite collection in the Archive is MS 1292, the letters and papers of Joseph Moore (1766 – 1851), because it ties together so many aspects of Birmingham’s culture and history – the Town Hall, the General Hospital, the musical connection with Leipzig (which is of course one of our sister cities today), and the Birmingham Music Festival for which I have a particular fondness and which was originally founded by Moore.

 Moore founded the festival in 1799 and was responsible for its management, and as part of his interest he instigated, in 1834, the building of Birmingham Town Hall as a working venue to house a festival of growing importance in the musical world.

Exterior view of Birmingham Town Hall. Photographed in 1891. [WK/B11/407]

Exterior view of Birmingham Town Hall. Photographed in 1891.

The festivals were used as a very successful means of raising funds for the General Hospital and this close co-operation between the medical and musical life of the city is reflected by the fact that the Town Hall organ and an extensive musical library were the property of the hospital, the cost having been defrayed out of the festival receipts (see MS 1292/9).

The correspondence in the collection demonstrates how the festivals, under the management of Moore, acquired a high reputation in Europe for giving the public a chance to hear masterpieces by great composers which were interpreted by the most eminent vocal and instrumental artists of the day.

This is further evidenced by the fact that new works were written especially for the festival, most notably by Felix Mendelssohn whose oratorio ‘Elijah’ was premiered at the festival of 1846 under the conductorship of the composer himself!

Mendelssohn had hoped that the Swedish songbird Jenny Lind would perform at the festival with Elijah (see MS 1292/5/4), and it is believed that he wrote the soprano part with her in mind.

Mendelssohn letters [MS 1292/5/2]

Mendelssohn letters
[MS 1292/5/2]

There are six letters in this collection from Mendelssohn to Moore that record the moment that Mendelssohn accepted the opportunity to perform a piece at the festival in Birmingham. His deliberations varied from what to perform, whether it be something he had already written and performed, such as his music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or something new (namely Elijah – which he was worried he would not complete in time!) to his return home to Leipzig, when he wrote:

“I have now returned home…and while I think over the events of this last journey I cannot help addressing these few lines to you in order to express once more the most sincere and most heartfelt thanks for your very kind reception… Indeed the first performance of my Elijah exceeded all the wishes which a composer may feel at such an important movement, and the evident good will of all the artists in the Orchestra as well as the kindness with which the audience received the work will be as long as I live a source of grateful recollection.”

Elijah has been performed many times since this first performance over 150 years ago, and it is a real privilege to have these Mendelssohn letters in our collections. Indeed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), whose archive we also hold here at the Library of Birmingham, have performed it a number of times, amongst many other of his pieces.

I am also very interested in Adrian Boult and his contributions to the city’s musical heritage, culture and development, and his connections to the Conservatoire, THSH and CBSO, so watch this space for a future piece on him….. or visit us in the Library of Birmingham to find out more.

Val Birchall
Assistant Director, Culture & Visitor Economy


The Mendelssohn letters will be on display in our Pop Up Exhibition on Tuesday, 17th November, so why not come along and see them in person!


2 responses to “Explore Your Archives at the Library of Birmingham

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    The history of Birmingham Town Hall and the Birmingham Music Festivals it was built to showcase

  2. Reblogged this on #BrumHour and commented:
    via theironroom

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