Dr Karen Attar, curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, explores the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist who set up more than 2,800 libraries around the world before he died on 11 August 1919.

In accordance with the breadth of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy, most of these libraries were public ones. But Senate House Library (SHL) can testify to his posthumous generosity via the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (CUKT), which gave it 31 volumes published mainly between the 15th and 17th centuries. Each one was a landmark in music printing.

The Trust bought the books at an auction sale of Alfred Henry Littleton’s collection in 1918, when it was considering establishing a music library. While it changed its mind, the University of London (UoL) established a music library in 1925, and Sir Percy Buck, the university’s music professor and a member of its Library Committee, persuaded CUKT to give the books to UoL.

Shown here to celebrate the Carnegie anniversary is one of those books, John Wilbye’s First Set of Madrigals (1598), listed in the Library Committee’s annual report for 1932 as one of ‘the most notable compositions’ among the CUKT gift.


AuthorWilbye, John, 1574-1638.
TitleThe first set of English madrigals to 3.4.5. and 6. voices / newly composed by Iohn Wilbye.
ImprintAt London : Printed by Thomas Este, 1598.
Descript.[4], XXX; [2], XXX; [2], XXX; [4], XXX; [2], XIII-XXX; [4], XXIII-XXX p : music ; 22 cm. (4to)

It is through his madrigals that Wilbye (1574–1638), who spent most of his life in comparative obscurity as a domestic musician, is known. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001) describes him as ‘one of the finest English madrigalists’.

Meanwhile, the Tudor music specialist Edmund Horace Fellowes yet more superlatively stated that Wilbye was ‘regularly acknowledged to be the greatest stylist of the Elizabethans’ (introduction to his edition of the First Set of Madrigals). He also asserted him to be ‘one of the greatest figures in English Music’ (The English Madrigal Composers, 2e, 1948, p. 221). Wilbye wrote in all styles to a high standard. Yet more importantly, he established the serious madrigal as a recognised form of composition.

Wilbye published 64 madrigals in all, the 30 here and the rest in his Second Set of Madrigales (1609). They are written for between three and six voices. That the Senate House copy of the First Set of Madrigals has all six parts bound in a single volume is evidence that by the time of this latest binding they were intended for reference rather than use.

For the book historian, the volume is also interesting for its publisher, Thomas Este, or East (1540–1608). From 1587 onwards, East specialised in music printing and publishing. He edited music carefully and was faithful to the intentions of the composers.

He was ‘the’ madrigal printer of his time, having printed the Musica Transalpina in 1588 (the first printed collection of Italian madrigals with texts translated into English), most of the following collections of ‘Englished’ Italian madrigals of the time, and the works of many of the Elizabethan madrigalists. Both William Byrd and, later, Thomas Morley sometimes employed him. As well as printing the work of established composers, East invited young, up-and-coming composers to his press – one of who was Wilbye.

Before entering the music publisher Alfred Henry Littleton’s possession, SHL’s copy of Wilbye’s First Set of Madrigals belonged to an Irish book collector in Cork, William Horatio Crawford (1815–1888). Littleton would have bought it when Crawford’s collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 1891.

For Senate House Library, the work is not only valuable for its place within a significant research area, but for the light that it sheds on the vibrant, innovative culture of the Shakespearean era – a value that was to become apparent as Shakespearean holdings increased. It is no accident that the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington holds another copy.

Thank you, Andrew Carnegie.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history, and aspects of special collections. Dr Attar is also the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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Celebrating the 450th anniversary of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ 
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