Special collections: music


From its opening in 1602 until the late 18th century, the Bodleian Library held relatively little music. Books about music were received under the terms of Sir Thomas Bodley's agreement with the Stationer's Company in 1610, but almost no printed music was received. The library's copy of Henry Carey’s Cantatas (1624) may have been the first example, and is a rare exception.

However, there were many medieval liturgical books and manuscript treatises on music amongst the collections which grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th centuries. These attracted scholars like Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins to use the library for work on their histories of music.

For printed and manuscript music of the 16th to 18th centuries, the University had another resource: the Music School Collection, in the care of successive Heather Professors of Music. In addition to the mid-16th century 'Forrest-Heather partbooks', it was rich in madrigal books, 17th-century English consort music, 17th-century Italian printed instrumental music, and the complete court odes of William Boyce. The collection was transferred to the Bodleian in 1885.

Early donations and acquisitions

From the 1780s, the Bodleian's own collection of music began to grow appreciably, when a regular flow of British printed music finally began to be received under legal deposit. This has continued to the present day, but it has always been far from comprehensive.

Purchases of individual items to 'fill in the gaps' has been, and continues to be, part of the Bodleian Library's policy. However, the library's remarkably good collections of British printed music from the 16th century onwards are largely due to substantial donations of antiquarian material over the centuries. Even primarily non-musical collections (such as those of Anthony Wood, Francis Douce and Edmund Malone) have often included extremely interesting musical items.

The first significant purely musical collection came in 1801. The bequest of Osborne Wight, Fellow of New College, offered the library any manuscript and printed music from his library it chose to select. The selection included a strong collection of 17th- and 18th-century English music, including autographs of Purcell, Greene and Boyce, as well as 18th-century printed editions of Handel and the like.

For the remainder of the 19th century, relatively few non-copyright additions were made to the music collections. However, the period did see the acquisition of two of its most famous music manuscripts. MS. Canonici misc. 213, with music of Dufay and others, came as part of the Canonici collection in 1817. The so-called Sadler partbooks (MSS. Mus. e. 1-5) were purchased in 1885, the year in which the Music School Collection came under the jurisdiction of the Library.

20th century and beyond

Major new foreign books on music were sometimes acquired in the 19th century. However, no attempt was made to buy foreign musical editions. Not even the collected works of Bach or Mozart were obtained for the library at the time of publication. Building up the foreign holdings only received serious attention in the second half of the 20th century. Through steady purchases of antiquarian and current material, a remarkably well-rounded research collection has been accumulated.

Sound recordings

The Bodleian Library has only a small collection of sound recordings. These were mostly received as adjuncts to books or journals, although recordings of local or archival interest are sometimes acquired.

The Music Faculty Library houses the University’s main collection of commercial recordings.


In recent years, the Music Section has also developed its collection of concert and opera programmes to include not only Oxford items, but many from London and other centres from the mid-19th century onwards. This complements material in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, and forms the largest UK collection of its kind outside London.


From the 1920s, the Bodleian encouraged the donation of manuscripts of British composers, particularly those with Oxford connections. The library has collected substantial collections of the manuscripts of Hubert Parry, Basil Harwood, George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, Ernest Farrar, Robin Milford, Percy Sherwood, Ernest Walker, Alfred Hale, Howard Ferguson, Bruce Montgomery and Clifton Parker, as well as isolated manuscripts of Bax, Elgar, Holst, Howells, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Maxwell Davies and others.

Recent major acquisitions

The library has also been exceptionally fortunate in acquiring several major music collections since the middle of the 20th century. The collection of the pioneering Handel scholar TW Bourne was bequeathed to the library in 1948. This contained more than 150 early editions of music and libretti of Handel and his contemporaries, and about 20 volumes of manuscripts.

The immense Harding Collection, received from Chicago in 1975, impressively strengthened the library's already considerable resources in the fields of English secular song and English and foreign opera scores, as well as making it the major holder of American song material on this side of the Atlantic.

The M. Deneke Mendelssohn Collection, acquired mostly by donation directly or indirectly from descendants of the composer, has led to the Bodleian becoming one of the two principal centres for Mendelssohn research in the world. It is rich in autographs, letters, drawing books, and other personal items, as well as containing a considerable part of the composer’s own library. With the generous help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the library was able to add the final autograph score of the Hebrides Overture to this collection in 2002. The presence of the Mendelssohn collection has attracted further related collections, including those of William Sterndale Bennett and the Horsley-Callcott families.

The famous music library of St. Michael's College Tenbury came to the library in 1985 when the college closed its doors. The collection added to the Bodleian's holdings over 1000 music manuscripts, 600 printed treatises and 5500 items of printed music ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries, including the celebrated 'Batten Organ Book' and Handel's own conducting score of Messiah. Apart from some items sold off by the college before its closure, the acquisition has enabled this notable collection to be essentially kept intact (for the most part, only printed items already duplicated in the Bodleian's collections were not acquired) and accessible to future generations of scholars.

In 1998 the Bodleian received a donation of 2200 music editions and 200 books from the library of Alan Tyson. With a focus on music of the Viennese classical composers, and rich in first editions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others, it has enhanced the Bodleian's holdings of this material in a most remarkable manner. In 2006 the Mozart holdings were further strengthened by the acquisition, in lieu of inheritance tax, of 87 Mozart lifetime editions from the collection of the late antiquarian music dealer Albi Rosenthal.

More recently still, the library has acquired the music manuscripts of the composers Philip Cannon, Gordon Crosse and Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and the archives of Edmund Rubbra, Robert Simpson and Hugh Ottaway.

See more