Henry Watson Music Library

Creative Tourist
Henry Watson Music Library in St. Peters square, where the Ministry of Lost and Found event takes place
G-Man via Wikimedia

The Henry Watson music library isn’t just an incredible resource – it also has a story to tell about the man who gave it his name. You know those people who take to almost every task with an infuriating ease? You can count musician Henry Watson among them. By the age of six he had taught himself the dulcimer, at ten was in demand as a session musician, at fourteen was touring the country as the accompanist to an anti-slavery show, and by eighteen he was part of a booming instrument repair business. He didn’t exactly slow down after adolescence, either, gaining a doctorate from Cambridge and a prominent position in the Hallé Society, all while keeping up his own end as a prolific composer and arranger. Did we mention he founded a library, housing over 15,000 rare scores, 300 instruments and a mass of other musical materials? So, it is our loss that Doctor Watson – who died in 1911 – is no longer with us, but our gain that his spirit lives on in the Henry Watson Music Library. Located within the newly reopened Manchester Central Library, the room it lives in runs around the back of the Wolfson reading room and is energetic, eclectic and unpretentious, much like the man himself. Founded with his original collection and expanding ever since, it now holds over 200,000 volumes of printed music, periodicals and books, making it one of the largest – if not the largest – music libraries in England. On entering you are greeted by an odd orchestra of gentle keys, creaking chairs, whispered questions and the soft slide and thud of books finding their allotted shelf space. Instead of desks and reading lamps you have clavinovas, instead of rows of books you have shelves of scores and instead of silence you have sound. In a way, it’s all rather un-library like, which is probably just what Doctor Watson would have wanted. Henry Watson was born in 1846 in Burnley, the son of a mill supervisor. The family soon moved to Accrington, home for his formative years and where his musical talents began to bloom early on the town’s newly terraced streets. But, like so many talents, Watson’s musical ability had plenty of precedent. His grandfather Joseph was the fulcrum around which music life in Burnley revolved, while his father was proficient on the double bass, clarinet and bassoon. More than this, the north west of England at that time was full of bands made up of working men who would join together to share in musical communion, often taking to the moors and playing while they walked, at one with the land, and God. Jump forward one hundred and seventy-odd years and that sense of music as shared community is still being fostered, under the banner of Library Live. Central Library is playing host to different and dynamic performances, bringing sounds into silent spaces, with the resources of the Henry Watson Library providing a key component. Whether this be live events for Manchester After Hours or local band Everything Everything curating five days of sonic speculation, the scheme is expanding the idea of what a library can be. “The library is in his spirit, although he probably wouldn’t have imagined it quite like this!” says librarian Ros Edwards of Henry Watson. Watson’s early experience with libraries was certainly more sedate, especially after he moved to Cambridge to study for first a Bachelors, and then a Doctorate degree. Again he excelled, although he was asked to re-write the overture of his doctoral piece – The Deliverance of Israel – which, with typical brilliance, he managed to do in a single sleepless night. Reinvigorated by his education and eager to share his burgeoning knowledge base, Watson returned to Manchester and set about conducting as many as eight choral groups at one time, producing over 42 programmes in a single music season. He was also amassing a considerable collection of books, scores and instruments, all of which he kept in his small flat in Salford. Unlike so many collectors, though, this was not a private nut to be squirrelled away; Watson was growing his library for the benefit of the people of Manchester. In 1899 he donated his collection to the city, and the Henry Watson Music Library was born. “Access to music was his thing,” says Edwards. You can feel that spirit as you walk through the library today: in one corner there’s someone mixing on electronic decks, in another a group are discussing composition, while in the background Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata drifts in somnolent bliss from the keys of an electric piano. This mixing pot of music is not only a wonderful resource for the public, it is also challenging and inspiring the librarians. “We’re still working out how to best use our resources,” Edwards admits, “whether that’s for music groups, or individuals – but it’s fun finding out!” When Doctor Watson passed away peacefully, he was still in his same small flat, by then bursting at the seams with music material; in fact, the city bought the house next door to help house the books. His modest home, and his willingness to share his collection with the public, is a testament to his love of music and his humble nature. His close friend Albert Jarret perhaps summed him up best, saying, “he is a man possessed of the harmonies and cheery spirit of music.” Simply replace “he is a man” with “it is a library” and you’ll have a description that fits just as aptly to the library that so proudly carries Watson’s name.

St Peter's SquareManchesterM2 5PD
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Opening Hours

  • Monday9:00am - 8:00pm
  • Tuesday9:00am - 8:00pm
  • Wednesday9:00am - 8:00pm
  • Thursday9:00am - 8:00pm
  • Friday9:00am - 8:00pm
  • Saturday9:00am - 5:00pm

Always double check opening hours with the venue before making a special visit.

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