How to find lost and neglected compositions
Ever wondered what it is like to go searching in a big library in Europe for works not played since the 18th Century? I have been wondering this for quite some time as I have always been interested in lost and neglected music by forgotten and neglected composers. As of a week ago, I have stepped into the world of hidden manuscripts. It is truly a bizarre place of particular books, from particular shelves, with particular numbers, but all accessible with the right knowledge, several hours to burn, a USB stick, and a small quantity of Euros.
I have recently moved to Berlin—one of the most important centres for the cello in the 18th Century, as King Friedrich Wilhelm II (1744–1797) was a cello virtuoso. Many cellists will know the delights and pleasures of the music written for his royal highness: Mozart’s Prussian Quartets, Beethoven’s Op.5 Cello Sonatas any many others. Here is one example of this treasure trove: the first movement of the G Minor Sonata Op.5 by Beethoven performed here by Bruno Cocset.
While I’m here in Berlin, and not busy playing concerts and studying with some of the finest cellists in Europe, I am on a mission to see what is left of King Friedrich Wilhelm II’s court library—now located in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz. I am particularly interested in the cello works played by him.
To my surprise, not only were there 80 or so sonatas written for the ‘Cellist King’, but many of the manuscripts I have uncovered include his fingerings, cadenzas, remarks of satisfaction, smatterings of wax and even charred corners from evenings of rehearsal!
To get to this library was easy, but to navigate the shelves, librarians, checkpoints and confusing building layout I needed some help, and luckily I have a good friend who has been immersing himself in the same library collection for the past couple of years. Tim Willis is an amazing Australian violinist, has been resident in Berlin for two years now and was delighted to show me the ropes. He unlocked for me the ins and outs of the system, how to get a card, where to look, how to use the microfilm etc., and where I might find all that I needed to begin my journey.
After pouring through the catalogue it became apparent that large tracts of music had been destroyed mostly during WWII: blown up, stolen, or exposed to the elements rendering it beyond repair. Never the less, an amazing collection remains by some really interesting composers, and even music by the King himself and the tutor he learned cello from!
How to retrieve a score
As an example of the process I’ll tell you how I retrieved João Baptista André Avondano’s four sonatas and two duets (1784) from the Staatsbibliothek Berlin. While these sonatas are available elsewhere and have been performed in the last 10 years, they are hard to come by. But these manuscripts contain interesting insights—including, for example, handwritten fingerings and cadenzas made by the King.
Each work in the library has a catalogue number that is prefaced by the library identification KHM. The number for this set of sonatas was KHM122.
At the librarian’s desk they have forms to fill out so as to gain access to the scores or their microfilm copies. One simply fills out the form with the required information, and submits it to the same desk before 2:00PM.
Between order and pick up, I use this time to research composers from the catalogue—to place them in the history of Friedrich Wilhelm II’s reign. With typical German precision, when 3:00PM comes around, the scores and microfilms arrive at the desk.
You are provided with a lens for the microfilm machine and then you can set to work. Learning how to use the microfilm machine at first is pretty daunting—a little bit like virtual reality—but after an hour of fiddling with the dials, you soon become an expert.
After loading up your library account with scans, the next step is to go to the copy desk where they access saved materials and copy them to a USB stick you provide. Ten cents a page is the current going rate—which is excessively cheep!! A sonata for 50–70 cents?! Bargain.
So there you have it—one of easiest thing you could possibly do, and such great rewards! There is so much music in the world; so many fantastic gems to be rediscovered that you should never let a silly process like library research get in the way. This beautiful music deserves to be found and played!