19th-Century Musicians as Annotators


An ambitious collaborative project in partnership with the British Library and the visual exploration platform ©Zegami. The first stage (hosted by the University of Oxford, 2019-2020) is funded by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund.

If you have ever stepped into a library, you know how to get hold of something you are looking for: you browse the catalogue and request an item. It is a process of individuation, mostly based on details of authorship (who wrote something, who published or produced it, in other words, the making of that object). What tends to be discounted in this approach is the experience of previous owners or users of that item.

In this first stage of the project, we are creating a prototype digital resource that will enable alternative visualisations – and perspectives – on the material: visualisations specifically tailored to explore annotations and other traces of usage left by nineteenth-century musicians while interacting with these objects. They can be marginalia, ownership inscriptions, dedications, performance markings, page cut-outs and paste-ins, etc. Focusing on these traces is a means to imagine owners and users interacting with the material, thus facilitating our exploration of their priorities and agendas in handling it.

One gain from this perspective is the opportunity to avoid sorting individuals in the somewhat artificial categories of composers, performers, listeners, collectors etc. – that is, either at the creative or the receiving end of music. Recent scholarship in both musicology and nineteenth-century media culture has stressed how for most of the nineteenth century these identities tended to blur for almost anyone interested in or handling music. Regardless one’s musical abilities, or degrees of authorial control over texts, the visualisations we are proposing show books and scores not as works of their authors, but as transformed by and products of these interactions.

The resulting ‘user view’ on the material has the potential to transform our research approach, even our research questions. The nineteenth century saw an increase of unprecedented scale in the number of people handling music and its paraphernalia. Musicology has been busy tracing this expansion in terms of listening practices and the history of public concerts. However, before the invention of the phonograph in 1887, musical culture remained significantly anchored to bookish interactions. Concertgoers did not constitute the majority of music consumers in this period, and most of them also bought arrangements to perform at home, kept concert programmes (and often annotated them), or subscribed to music journals. 19th-Century Musicians as Annotators is a project that champions an understanding of music culture in this period that restores it to the media ecology in which it was historically embedded.

Links to the resource produced, a digital exhibition at the British Library, and published outcomes will be listed here as they become available.


Principal Investigator: Dr Fabio Morabito, University of Oxford

Co-Investigator: Prof Nicholas Mathew, University of California, Berkeley

Dr Reuben Phillips, Princeton University

Prof Leah Price, Harvard University

Dr Rupert Ridgewell, The British Library

Dr Amelie Roper, The British Library

Dr Kevin Page, Oxford e-Research Centre

Mr Roger Noble, Zegami

Mr Doug Lawrence, Zegami

Project Assistant: Mr William Nattrass



In partnership with:

Funded by: