In 1978, while working as an assistant in what was then the Library's 'rare books room', Robert Petre, a music graduate and accomplished harpsichordist, spied among the collection a little volume called The harpsichord master, which had not received much attention since it was donated by Mr Claude Purchas on 24 March 1937. According to the title-page, it contained 'plain & easy Instructions for Learners on ye Spinnet or harpsichord, written by ye late famous Mr H Purcell at the request of a perticuler [sic] friend & taken from his owne Manuscript, never before publish't'.
Investigating further, Petre made a discovery that soon excited the interest of musicologists around the world. Besides the prefatory 'Instructions for Learners', The harpsichord master includes two otherwise unknown compositions by English Baroque maestro Henry Purcell (1659-1695): a piece titled 'Prelude to ye fingering' and a keyboard transcription of one of the songs from his opera The Indian queen (first performed at Drury Lane a few months before Purcell's death).
The harpsichord master was part of a series of instructional manuals published in the late 1690s. The Library's copy is thought to be unique; no others have survived. It extends to thirty leaves, printed on one side only, with some manuscript annotations in an unknown hand. As well as works by Purcell, it contains pieces by less renowned English composers of the period: Jeremiah Clarke (ca1674-1707), Thomas Morgan (fl 1691-99), John Barrett (ca 1676-1719) and Robert King (ca 1660-1726).
A new edition of the book, compiled by Petre, was published in Wellington by Price Milburn Music in 1980. In his introduction Petre notes: 'The first piece in The harpsichord master has the added interest of including what are presumably Purcell's own fingerings. The system of left-hand fingering was the opposite of present practice, i.e. numbered 1-5, starting with the little finger and ending with the thumb.'