English guitar by Preston  

English guitar by John Preston, RCM 161

Dido and Aeneas front page of libretto  

Libretto for Henry Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' D144


Overview of Special Collections

The Royal College of Music Special Collections form the most wide-ranging and substantial research resource relating to the history of music held by a UK conservatoire, and are of international significance.

Within these pages, you can find information regarding the kinds of material we hold, how they are organised and catalogued, and how to access them for the purposes of research.

PLEASE NOTE: The collections currently held by the Centre for Performance History will be unavailable from 28 February 2014. There will be no public access to these collections for three months from this date. Notifications of future access arrangements will be circulated in due course. See Visitor Information for more details.

The RCM Special Collections can be roughly divided into six types of material:

Archives. A substantial proportion of the archival holdings is made up of personal collections of musicians, principally composers (e.g. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Hurlstone) and performers (e.g. Leon Goossens, Isolde Menges, Mary Garden and Geraldo), but also include the papers of Clive Carey (singer, opera producer and teacher) and manuscript reports on music by Lionel Bradley (1898-1953). In addition, the collections contain a number of archives relating to businesses (e.g. Bechstein, Boosey & Hawkes, Ibbs & Tillett, Novello & Co. and Frederick Rothwell & Co) and institutions (e.g. the Bach Choir, the New Berlioz Edition and the Society of Women Musicians).

Books. With the earliest volumes dating from the mid-17th century, the RCM's collection of books contains many early treatises on music, contemporary libretti for Handel’s oratorios and the unique printed libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Among the later holdings are the Heron-Allen collection of literature on the violin family – once the most comprehensive of its type – and a series of bound pamphlets on musical subjects, many from the collection of Sir George Grove. Other books from Grove’s library (invariably annotated) reflect his particular interest in the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert. The periodical holdings include runs of a number of 19th-century titles.

Images. The iconographic collection is mainly concerned with images of musicians, instruments and music in performance and includes about 130 paintings, 104 sculptures, c. 4000 prints and nearly 20,000 photographs. Most of the paintings may be viewed on the Your Paintings website. Some images are of enormous historical interest, such as the portrait of Joseph Haydn painted by Thomas Hardy in 1791; others are tantalising sketches for paintings later destroyed (a 1905 portrait of Elgar by Talbot Hughes) or striking portraits of less familiar musicians, such as that of the glee composer John Wall Callcott by his brother Augustus Wall Callcott.

Instruments. The collection of over 1,000 instruments and associated items dating from c.1480 to the present includes some highly significant items, including the oldest surviving stringed keyboard instrument, the oldest known baryton, arguably the earliest guitar, numerous important keyboard instruments (many in playing condition), brass instruments formerly belonging to musicians such as Elgar, Holst and Steele-Perkins, a unique collection of playable early English viols, and historically significant wind instruments such as a recorder by Denner and clarinet by Scherer.

Music. When it opened in 1883, the RCM was presented with two large and significant gifts, the libraries of the Concerts of Ancient Music and the Sacred Harmonic Society. As a result, the collections of manuscript and printed music are particularly rich in English and Italian music from the 18th and early 19th centuries (reflecting British musical taste), but they also contain important sources from the 16th and 17th centuries, among them a choir-book once owned by Anne Boleyn. Later holdings include important autographs by Haydn, Mozart, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton, and many manuscripts by composers who studied and/or taught at the RCM.

Programmes. Programmes of concerts and operas tell us far more than who performed what, when and where – important and interesting though that information can be for an understanding of music and its history – but also give glimpses into social and economic aspects of musical life in the past. The RCM Special Collections houses the largest collection of such documents in the UK, consisting of over 600,000 items dating from the early-18th to the early-21st centuries.

Coleridge-Taylor letter  

Manuscript letter from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

St Cecilia playing the organ, Museum portrait  

St Cecilia, Unknown Italian artist, 17th century

Bridge Phantasm MS front page  

Manuscript of Frank Bridge's Phantasm, H182