Skip to Main Content

Archives and Special Collections: Music, Literature and the Arts: Music

Our collections

You can research church music going back a thousand years here at Durham. We provide access to liturgical manuscripts from the former Durham Priory  - the largest surviving medieval monastic library in England, now part of Durham Cathedral Library. Our own collections range from medieval music among the Cosin manuscripts to the printed service books of Catholic female communities in exile on the continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

More recent Catholic liturgical works are represented in the manuscripts and printed books of the Everingham Chapel. We also have the library of the Durham branch of the Salvation Army, which gives us an insight into their musical activities.

A further rich source of liturgical music can be found in the library at Ushaw College, a former Catholic seminary about 6 miles outside Durham.


We hold one of the most extensive collections of hymnody in the country. This is the Pratt Green collection of hymn books, and some psalters and studies of hymn writing, many on open access in the Barker Research Library.

Manuscript material of the collection is accessible in the Search Room, including the papers of the hymn writers John Wilson (1905-1992), H.C.A. Gaunt (1902-1983), John Ellerton (1826-1893), and the Methodist minister and prolific hymnodist and translator of hymns Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000).

Invaluable also as a resource for the relations between an author and his publisher is the considerable collection of the writer of around 400 hymns, Timothy Dudley-Smith (b1926), former Bishop of Thetford. 

The working papers of a number of composers are available to researchers and students. The collections include the papers of Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), the organist and composer, and initial examiner of the university’s external music degrees, perhaps best known for The Crucifixion. They also include those of the post-romantic composer Graham Whettam (1927-2007), which illustrate the efforts composers have to make to get their pieces performed or played. There are also papers of the female composers Else Headlam-Morley (1865-1950) and the increasingly appreciated Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944).

There are several collections that give an insight into music performance, from working papers and scores to concert programmes. For local performances the archives of the Durham Choral Society and the Fleming collection may be of interest. The latter is still growing and is waiting to be catalogued, but contains a mixture of printed and manuscript material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a focus on performance practice in the North East.

In addition, we hold the papers of the Allegri String Quartet; the local musician and conductor Nicholas Kilburn (1843-1923); the American conductor and pianist Ezra Rachlin (1915-1995); and the musicologist Peter Evans (1929-2018).

Durham University technically had the right to award Music degrees in the 19th century, but it had no course for Music until the need of professional musicians for a qualification was recognised in 1889 by the establishment of the BMus. No residence was required, and a preliminary Arts test allowed access to a course which provided for 2 exams, the second of which included a musical composition.

The successful ones of these, and the similar DMus ones, have been retained as a now extensive archive of musical pieces. Philip Armes, the cathedral organist and instigator of the degrees, was the first examiner together with Sir John Stainer, and was appointed as the first professor of Music in 1897. These external music degrees met a need for quite a while and lasted until 1980, by which stage a BA in music for students in residence, taught within a music department, was well established.

The history of the Music Department can also be traced in our extensive University Archives.

Availability online (digital images)

Apart from liturgical manuscripts that form part of the former Durham Priory, no collections have been digitised, so that only the catalogues are currently available online.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please get in touch.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 5pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Where to start