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Edward Elgar circa 1917
Edward Elgar circa 1917
(Wikimedia Commons)

When you think of long-lost manuscripts rediscovered, you probably think of works by Bach or Mozart. Certainly it’s cause for celebration when such an ancient manuscript turns up, since it can give musicologists insight into the composer’s original ideas about the piece.

But such discoveries are rare. Let’s face it – in those days, most composers were writing for the moment. They didn’t consider the possibility that their works would outlive them. If they kept their manuscripts, it was mostly for reference.

Bach and Handel, for example, saved their manuscripts so they could recycle from them. They often lifted entire movements from those earlier works to adapt for their present needs. Handel’s Messiah contains sections of his Italian operas. Bach’s concertos draw on movements from his cantatas (and vice versa).

You’d think that by the 20th century composers would have realized that they might be writing for the ages, and would have learned to be more careful with their originals. Still, they clearly placed more value on some works than others. It’s not too surprising that a composer might not think a short work written for a special occasion would be of much interest beyond that day. And in fact it appears that Edward Elgar wasn’t too careful with the original manuscript of just such a work .

That manuscript turned up just this past Tuesday (14 February 2012) in Leicestershire, after being lost for over half a century.

It’s a work for carillon (church bells, usually mechanized and played with a keyboard, but sometimes played entirely manually). Edward Elgar composed it for the 1923 opening of the Carillon Tower in Queen’s Park, Loughborough, which was built as a memorial to the fallen in the first world war. Although copies of the manuscript have been known for some time, the original was thought to have been lost.

But on Tuesday staff at Charnwood Borough Council were cleaning and reorganizing a secure room, and they found a dusty old folder. It contained the original hand-written score for Carillon Chimes. They also stumbled across several letters from Elgar, and a film which may be footage of the tower’s opening. The items had been donated to the Council in the 1950s, filed away, and forgotten.

The film has been sent for analysis, to determine what it contains and whether it can be restored. As for the music itself, maybe this will bring new attention to a composition nearly forgotten.

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