I spent a wonderful afternoon in the Royal College of Music library a couple of days ago. It was a trip down memory lane for me as I hadn’t visited this particular library for about ten years and it was just as I had remembered; an elegant space imbued with tradition and history.
The RCM library is a fantastic facility containing a huge collection of books, recordings, artefacts, letters and memoirs. It is attached to the museum which houses over 1,000 instruments and accessories from the 15th century onwards. Perhaps the most interesting instrument in the collection is an anonymous clavicytherium believed to be the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument.
Whilst a student at the RCM, I was given the opportunity to play a Broadwood fortepiano owned by Haydn which occupies an important place in the museum’s collection. Pianist Melvyn Tan came to give a masterclass in the museum, itself an unusual event (at the time), and I was chosen with four other students, to play various classical sonatas (or movements from them). The Haydn sonata I chose to play (Hob 52 in E flat) felt comfortable on the Broadwood although the keys were characteristically light and I found the ‘knee pedal’ difficult to control. Pianists today have an easier time; playing pedals with feet feel quite different from trying to lift a knee in the correct place! Melvyn Tan gave us many interesting musical ideas and was full of encouragement. It was an enjoyable and very memorable occasion and we felt privileged to be able to play such historic instruments.
The RCM archives offer students a wealth of musical treats. The collection includes autographed manuscripts by Mozart, Haydn and Elgar (the ‘Cello Concerto) to name but a few. I was taken into the Strong Room which houses all kinds of records dating as far back as 1882, when the college first opened. I was interested to note all the professor/student records; which give details of a student’s professor, their achievements, and when they studied at the RCM. It was fascinating looking at professor records of particularly illustrious teachers like Dame Myra Hess, Sir Hubert Parry and, one of the first female piano professors, Arabella Goddard (whose files I have been researching). All details of minutes taken at various meetings throughout the years have been carefully noted and stored in beautiful antique volumes. I also enjoyed leafing through old copies of the college magazine and various old prospectuses.
Also worth a mention is the Centre for Performance History: Portraits and Performance Collection, which contains over 340 paintings and sculptures, and 25,000 prints and photographs, forming the most comprehensive archive of musician likenesses in the UK. There is also a collection of 600,000 concert programmes from 1720 to the present day. The Centre is open to the public and is by appointment. The Museum is also open to the public and admission is free.
Melvyn Tan playing Beethoven’s Bagatelles Op 126 on a Broadwood piano.