A Gresham Society Visit To See The Gresham Music Collection And Other Treasures, The Guildhall Library, 29 November 2016

Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg
Henry Purcell: The Gresham Autograph. Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg

Awesome.

I don’t use that word in the youthful, throw-away sense that I have been known to lampoon elsewhere – click here for an example.

I mean that some of the items I saw this evening really did inspire awe. That rare, tingling feeling at the back of my neck when seeing an especially stunning drama unfolding in an unexpected way, or hearing a wonderful piece of music, or seeing a rare, thought-provoking and/or beautiful artefact.

This was a very interesting Gresham Society outing, albeit so close to Gresham home turf that the word “outing” seems barely appropriate. The Guildhall is just off Gresham Street and around the corner from the old Gresham College; perhaps an “innings” rather than an outing for the Gresham Society.

Anyway, Dr Peter Ross provided a fascinating introduction, explaining the story of the Guildhall Library and its historical collections, of which the Gresham Music Collection is but one. Here is a link to Dr Ross’s Gresham lecture on the subject; more generally detailed but less oriented towards the Gresham Collection than the talk he gave us. Irene, one of our Gresham Society members, was a librarian at the Guildhall Library as a youngster, so she could fill in some details too.

I hadn’t realised the diversity of subject matter contained in the collection. I knew to expect music books and I knew that the Guildhall Collection generally had a massive collection of books about London; my cousin Sidney would have been in his element for those. But also many books on food in the Gresham Collection and fascinating books about travel, inventions and mechanical devices.

After the illustrated talk, Peter then showed us around the many artefacts he had lovingly laid out around the library for us to glance at and (in the case of more robust/less rare items) examine.

Among the most interesting to me, a rare manuscript of Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis, a favourite piece of mine. The rarity of this manuscript is two-fold. Firstly, it is documented as a “grandchild” of an original autograph – those are extremely rare for words of such antiquity and especially so for this work. Secondly, it contains a forty-first part for this forty-part piece.

Several of us wondered how the extra Spem part might have come about. I imagined a much simplified part, to allow a keen but profoundly untalented enthusiast like me to join in the singing. But that is mere conjecture for our “post-factual” era. Perhaps a truthful answer lies in the learned notes (mentioning the Gresham) contained in the version of the score shown in this link – click here.

One very beautiful travel book, Victorian era I should imagine, included a description and illustration of musicians in Aleppo. My slightly cack-handed smart phone image below does not do justice to the picture.

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Coincidentally, Janie and I are going to see Basel Rajoub (a musician from Aleppo) together with his Soriana Project and Wu Man, this Friday at the Wigmore Hall – (Ogblog item on that concert to follow shortly), so this exhibit seemed especially poignant to me that day.

(Janie and I think about Aleppo a lot at the moment. Not many people we know had, like us, the good fortune to visit that beautiful city some years ago – we look at our photos from Aleppo often these days – click here.)

But the highlight of the artefacts was the Purcell Autograph from the Gresham Music Collection. That was the item that really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg
Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg

In order to ensure we were in the right mood for the Purcell Autograph, Peter Ross put on some suitable Purcell Music. I didn’t realise until later that he really was playing the music from the autograph we were observing; the contents of the autograph were recorded some years ago and the recording is still available as a CD or download. I have downloaded the album and am listening to it with great pleasure as I write. It can be obtained through Amazon – click here...and other places too no doubt.

Libations and nibbles were available in the lecture room, at a safe distance from the precious books. The Gresham Society people are always delightful company. I believe that the merriment continued afterwards in a nearby watering hole; I needed to retreat quite early having irritatingly accepted an early morning speaking engagement in Southampton the next day. Still, this evening at the Guildhall Library will live long and happily in my memory.

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