MUSICA BRITANNICA was founded in 1951 as an authoritative national collection of British music. It is designed to stand alongside existing library editions, and to explore the vast heritage of material still largely untouched by them, thus making available a representative survey of the British contribution to music in Europe. Although its chief purpose is an accurate and scholarly presentation of the original texts, it is also intended to provide a basis for practical performance.
In the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, the great anthologies of music which the Germans call Denkmäler are further dignified as ‘Editions monumentales’. Musica Britannica is indeed a monument to our musical culture. Its Latin title, rather than ‘Music in Britain’, is a sign not of modesty, but of pride in the rich heritage we owe to the superimposition of cultures on these islands. The subtitle is ‘A National Collection of Music’. It is the collection which is national: the music is international, both in its quality (to borrow the vocabulary of research assessments) and in its scope.
It is piquant to recall how nearly the founders of the edition got one thing wrong. Musica Britannica was the product of the determination of the Royal Musical Association, expressed in its 1948 Memorandum of Association, to publish ‘English Music derived from non-copyright sources earlier than the twentieth century which has not been made available to the public by commercial publishers’. Fortunately, ‘English’ was quickly corrected. Scottish composers appeared in an early volume; composers from Ireland reflect a past political reality, while those from Italy (in Italian Madrigals Englished) may anticipate a future one. Although we need not include Handel, British by residence, we publish the children of immigrants, such as Alfonso Ferrabosco and Stephen Storace; and we claim among ‘our’ composers Peter Philips and John Field, most of whose music was composed abroad.
Rather than avoiding only what ‘commercial’ publishers offer, we avoid composers for whom scholarly collected editions exist or are in preparation: hence we have Blow rather than Purcell, Parry rather than Elgar, the keyboard music but not the rest of Byrd; and we do not tread on grass belonging to our distinguished cousin Early English Church Music. Anthologies must compromise between completeness and representativeness. There are few whose complete works, like Dunstable’s, fit into one volume — one of those which we view with the greatest pride. The original plan was to publish ten volumes; now with one hundred, and keeping all volumes in print, it is hard to see that our task has any real ending. We range in fame from Anon to Byrd, and from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century.
An independent charity only since 1976, Musica Britannica is above all a monument to scholarship, and to scholars, many of whom have worked for it in, fundamentally, a spirit of charity. Although this may seem contrary to the spirit of the times, we feel no shame that no one becomes rich through working for Musica Britannica. It is also a monument to people, and not only the composers published and the performers who bring it to life. The edition has been run by a committee of scholars whose names cover a century of British musicology. Among the founders were Edmund H. Fellowes, Edward J. Dent, Frank Howes, and Sir Jack Westrup. Forward thrust in the early years owed most to the energy of Thurston Dart, the first Secretary. Sir Anthony Lewis and Gerald Abraham served as members of the committee for 32 years, Lewis eventually as both General Editor and Chairman; in the former capacity he has been followed by Michael Tilmouth, Paul Doe, and H. Diack Johnstone and as Chairman by Brian Trowell. Two debts of the Editorial Committee are beyond redemption: to William Oxenbury, for forty years our Secretary until his retirement in 2004, and to Stainer & Bell. Thanks to the publisher's unflagging attention to clarity and elegance of presentation, and their promotional commitment to the edition, our labour of scholarship is diffused among the wider musical community, enabling us to plan with confidence for a future beyond our first hundred volumes.
Julian Rushton, Chairman of the Editorial Committee (1993–2020)
Musica Britannica Trust
Registered charity no. 271332
VAT registered no. 393 7834 05