Special Collections

Overview of the RCM's 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.

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

1. Images

The iconographic collection includes images of musicians, instruments and music in performance. There are about 130 paintings104 sculpturesc 4000 prints and nearly 20,000 photographs.

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.

Online resources

  • Many of the RCM's paintings may be viewed on the Your Paintings website.
  • Read Alan Davison's essay on Thomas Hardy's portrait of Haydn (1791)
  • Read Alan Davison’s essay on the French painter H.-P. Danloux and composer-pianist Jan Ladislav Dussek (1795)

All images and portraits are housed by the RCM Museum of Music. For further details please visit our Museum webpages.

2. Instruments

The Special Collections include more than 1,000 instruments and associated items dating from c 1480. It includes highly significant items such as the oldest surviving stringed keyboard instrument, the oldest known baryton andarguably the earliest guitar.

Also in the Special Collections are 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.

All instruments are housed by the RCM Museum of Music. For details please visit our Museum webpages.

3. Music

When the RCM was opened in 1883, it 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.

Online resource: 

All manuscripts and printed music are housed in the RCM Library. Visit our Library pages for further details.

4. Archives

A substantial proportion of the archival holdings is made up of personal collections of musicians. These include composers (e.g. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Hurlstone) and performers (e.g. Leon GoossensIsolde MengesMary Garden and Geraldo). They 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).

Online resource

All archive material is housed in the RCM Library. Visit our Library pages for further details.

5. Books

The RCM’s collection of books contains many early treatises on music, with the earliest volumes dating from the mid-17th century. These include 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.

Online resource:

All books are housed in the RCM Library. Visit our Library pages for further details.

6. Programmes

The RCM Special Collections houses the largest collection of programmes in the UK – more than 600,000 items dating from the early-18th to the early-21st centuries.

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.

Online resource:

All programmes are housed in the RCM Library. Visit our Library pages for further details.

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Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BS. Tel: +44(0)20 7591 4300 Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BS.
Tel: +44(0)20 7591 4300
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