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Dating and tracing the provenance of music in the British Library

Information on how to trace the provenance of music in the British Library, and how to date music that is itself undated.

Printed music

Ownership stamps in the British Library's printed scores and books give some information on the manner of acquisition:

  • items with a BLUE stamp were acquired by legal deposit
  • items with a RED stamp were purchased
  • items with a GREEN stamp were donated to the British Library

For purchased items, invoices have been retained since the late 19th century. If required, we can check these for information on the provenance of an item.

Blue legal deposit stamps can be used to ascertain an approximate date of publication (where none is given on the score) as items are generally deposited shortly after publication.

Publishers' plate numbers (printed at the bottom of each page of music) may also be used to date a publication.

Various guides to dating early printed editions have been published. They include:

Krummel, D. W. Guide for dating early published music: a manual of bibliographical practices (Kassel, London, 1974).
Kassler, Michael (ed.)Music entries at Stationers' Hall, 1710-1818 (Aldershot, 2004).
Neighbour, O. W. & Tyson, A.English music publishers' plate numbers in the first half of the nineteenth century (London, 1965).
Hopkinson, C.A dictionary of Parisian music publishers, 1700-1950 (London, 1954).
Humphries, C. & Smith, W. C. Music publishing in the British Isles from the beginning until the middle of the nineteenth century. 2nd edition, with supplement (Oxford, 1970).
Devriès, A. & Lesure, F.Dictionnaire des éditeurs de musique français-1820 (Geneve, 1979); 1820-1914 (Geneve, 1988). 3 vols.
Deutsch, O.Musikverlags Nummern: eine Auswahl von 40 datierten Listen, 1710-1900, zweite verbesserte Ausgabe (Berlin, 1961).

The date given in each entry for music in the online catalogue is the date of issue of the particular copy being catalogued, so far as can be ascertained. The following conventions are used:

1852Date of publication of the work.
[1852]Firm date supplied from other source of information, whether internal or external.
[wm 1802]Date appears in watermark.
[1852?]Probable date - actual date may be the year before or after.
[c.1845] or [c.1850]Date approximate or conjectural. In older catalogue entries, the form 1845? or 1850? was used.

The British Book Trade Index of those who worked in the book trade in England and Wales, and who were trading by 1851, includes useful information on music publishers, engravers and booksellers.

Manuscript music

Many manuscripts are annotated (on the flyleaves) with some details of their provenance. In addition, provenance information can often be found in the catalogues. The Manuscripts Catalogue generally includes fuller provenance information than the Hughes-Hughes and Willetts printed catalogues.


Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751

E-mail: Ask the Music Reference Team

External links

British Book Trade Index