By Mascha van Nieuwkerk

In musicology, the emergence of the ‘New Musicology’ or Cultural Musicology caused a broadening of the disciplinary focus to include the role of performers and musical consumers (audiences, critics, institutions, tastemakers) in shaping musical culture. Previously neglected print sources such as concert programmes, programme notes and other concert ephemera are of growing importance in this popular field of investigation. New technologies were applied in the past tree decades, to make these sources newly accessible through pioneering digital library initiatives.

However, the developments are slow. In 1981, in an article in the journal of the Music Library Association Notes, music collector James Fuld was the first to call for an international inventory of concert programmes. Fuld states: “Music programs and posters […] do not seem to have achieved a status in music libraries comparable to their usefulness. While libraries are presumably happy to receive these materials, they may not be well organized, preserved, or completely catalogued.”[1] More than twenty years after Fuld’s article, the Concert Programmes Project (CPP) was established in 2003 to address this issue on a national level in the United Kingdom. The Concert Life in 19th-Century London Database, another ambitious Digital Humanities project started in 1997 by the In Concert research group, is still not available online. What took them so long? What were the difficulties that these big data projects had to cope with and how can we learn from these projects in the making of the Felix Meritis Concert Programmes Database?

One of the leading scholars of the CPP, Rupert Ridgewell, rightfully states in his 2010 report about the Project that ‘part of the problem has to do with the fact that musical ephemera resist easy categorisation within the framework of traditional bibliographical concepts and library systems’ for the simple reason that the concerts do not have distinctive titles. ‘Whereas opera and theatre performances typically […] present a single work with a distinctive title, most concerts feature a selection of works without collective title other than ‘Concert’, ‘Piano Recital’, or something similarly generic.’[2] To help to solve this problem on the international stage, the International Association of Music Libraries has formed a Working Group on Access to Performance Ephemera, which has recently been seeking to establish guidelines and standards for describing materials.

The CPP was published online in 2007, offering descriptions of over 5500 collections in 53 holding institutions in 12 locations in the UK. Now, one of the main future goals of the project is to include item-level records, including details of composers and works performed. But this immense undertaking has not jet started off. The detailed item-level information, that can reveal historical structures to us such programming traditions and repertoires, is still hidden in boxes. At this level of detail, the research group In Concert has undertaken an in-depth analysis of a few representative years of musical activity to obtain a cross-section of musical life in London during the nineteenth century. In a paper presented at The 1st International Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop in September 2014, they analyse the barriers to the full exploitation of the available sources.[3] Like Ridgewell, the In Concert team points at the complexity and the inconsistency of the material and the high level of expertise needed for the identification and transcription of the original sources, which makes it highly time-consuming. The researchers offer two interesting solutions to this problem.

First they suggest that automatic analysis can be used to offer suggestions to aid hand analysis. For example, names of composers or musical works can be matched against existing data entries in the database or external sources, such as Grove Online. ‘This way, the binding of text to verified entries is controlled by an authoritative process, but made more time-efficient.’[4] This method is particularly applicable to the digitalisation of concert programmes, for it involves the identification of many composers as well as musical works. For the Felix Meritis Concert Programmes Database (FM database) we are now experimenting with linking programme items to the Grove Online database and the IMSLP database. The latter is especially interesting because it offers access to a collection of over 300,000 pdf scores of over 87,000 works and the IMSLP team is working on a tool called Peachnote that enables searching these scores ‘by melody’ via n-grams.[5]

A second solution proposed by the In Concert group to make data curation activities more durable is to take a more incremental, step-by-step approach. One may be able to answer questions based on only partial processing of the complete dataset. The starting-point for building a dataset is, in this case, an academic question, instead of achieving completeness. ‘While the whole dataset may remain under embargo, those parts that are deemed suitably complete and have already yielded value to the researchers can also be made available to others.’[6] For the FM database an interesting focus could be the programming in the seasons after the Belgian independence of 1830, to analyse how nationalist tendencies influenced the musical repertoire.

The experiences of the CCP and the In Concert project show the specific difficulties of the digitalisation of concert programmes. Their solutions can help us avoid the pitfalls that slow the process down. On the other hand they form a motivation to take a further step and create an database structure that is not only efficient, but also offers a new perspective on the analysis of concert programmes.


[1] James Fuld, ‘Music Programs and posters. The need for an inventory’, Notes. The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 31 (1981) 520-532, aldaar: 520.

[2] Rupert Ridgewell, ‘The Concert Programmes Project. History, progress and future directions’ Fontes Artis Musicae 57 (2010) 50-64.

[3] A. Dix, R. Cowgill, C. Bashford, S. McVeigh en R. Ridgewell, ‘Authority and Judgement in the Digital Archive’, in: The 1st International Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop (2014), ACM/IEEE Digital Libraries conference 2014, London 12th Sept. 2014.

[4] Ibidem: 6.

[5] Vladimir Viro, ‘Peachnote. Music score search and analysis platform’, 12th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference (2011)

[6] ‘Authority and Judgement in the Digital Archive’, 6.