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more About catalogers and cataloging—An appreciation

Like the composers they catalog, classical music catalogers are masters of their craft; they're researchers and scholars whom music academicians and serious musicians regard as heroes.

Sadly, they are largely unknown to the rest of us. Catalogers are obscure, unsung heroes. Why? Without them, many ordinary works and masterworks might be totally lost, or might be lost to all but a few cognoscenti. Without the benefit of their researches, investigations, and organizing skills, the music world would be at a loss to deal with a massive corpus of tens of thousands of unsorted, unfiled compositions scattered in hopeless disarray over tabletops, in cabinets, and on shelves. Because they would be unable to identify, date, self-correlate, and cross-correlate much of the output of the masters, musicians would be at a loss to know what to play at concerts or how to interpret the music in the manner desired by the composer. The public would be the great loser.

the Challenge

Cataloging is fraught with difficulties. It is no easy chore. What makes a cataloger's profession so challenging?

To begin with, the output of a master composer is usually massive. But sheer volume is not the only reason. Many uncertainties surround the life and work of many composers, especially those of earlier centuries. Composers are people; like the rest of us, they lead lives that can be complex; they perform deeds and produce results that can be difficult to systematically track down, classify, and quantify. For example, some composers perform seamy, unseemly, illegal, or disreputable acts they wish hidden from public view. Some lead quiet or reclusive lives, especially in their early years, in the period before they are discovered. Some use pseudonyms; some drop out of sight or travel endlessly, only to reemerge later in life. Sometimes a composer will intentionally hide and forget a work or mask the circumstances under which it is written. Composers will start a piece and put it aside, turn their attention to another work, then resume work on the first piece, making it next to impossible to establish a meaningful date for the first work's composition.

To make matters worse, composers destroy their own works, accidentally or intentionally lose them, store them away for a future revision that never comes, or produce multiple versions of a given work under the same composer or title name or under different names. Ravel, composer of the Bolero, thought the piece inconsequential; he actually disliked it, felt that it was unworthy of his talents. He had so low an opinion of this work, he "accidentally" left the only manuscript behind on a music store counter on his way out the door to an ocean voyage. Was his memory lapse caused by a desire to see it vanish? Fortunately, he reconsidered and returned to gather it up.

Many musicians and their works are obscure; they, their music, and the circumstances in which they worked, lived, and died went unrecorded. Since their music and backgrounds were unappreciated in their lifetimes, they went unrecorded. Musicians—especially those predating the 19th century—tended move about the country or from country to county; they took different names in different places or they were known by more than one name at the same time.

Historical accidents or societal practices can result in manuscripts being destroyed or lost. Even the great and prominent Mozart, famous in his own time, in contact with his wife and family and friends to the very end, was buried in a common Viennese grave, a custom of the time. Although the cemetery is known, the exact whereabouts of his remains are lost.

Works composed by one musician are accidentally attributed to another. Publishers sometimes publish a work more than once during a composer's lifetime or they publish posthumously, making it difficult to establish the date or order of publication or composition. Works are lost or destroyed because censors believe they are unfit for the public ear or because audiences give them a cold reception. Enemies or competitors "misplace" or intentionally destroy a work. Composers "improve" or adapt another's composer's work. Critics blast a work until it falls into obscurity. The causes for disruption and loss are seemingly without end.

Here are just a few of the many challenges a cataloger must face and overcome:

  • A musical composition may be created over a period of years. Meanwhile the composer is starting, finishing, and publishing other works.
  • It may be published more than once.
  • It may be published by more than one publisher.
  • It may be published piecemeal. The pieces may be written or published out of sequence.
  • It may be revised and republished, in part or in the whole.
  • Historical records may be incomplete, inaccurate, lost, or nonexistent.
  • A composer may hide works from the public or works may be misplaced or lost in dusty libraries.
  • New research may unearth new information that muddies the waters.
  • Continuing research may give scholars good reasons to change their minds about such matters as the date a work was published, the publication or composition sequence, about who is the actual composer of a work, or about whether the composer wrote a work attributed to him.
  • Looking at the same evidence, multiple catalogers may develop and cherish differences of opinion that incline them to opposing views about the provenance or other details of a composer's life and works, putting in doubt such details as the key in which a work is written or its tempo.
  • A composer may complicate matters by producing different versions of the same work, including draft copies, revisions of works already published, or versions specialized for different instruments.

Is it any wonder that mistakes and omissions sometimes occur in catalogs despite the cataloger's best efforts to catch and eliminate them? The bulk of available data about composers and their works is rock solid and dependable, but as a rule, the earlier or more obscure the composer, the more ambiguities and uncertainties in the details. Sometimes all a cataloger can do is to indicate when, where, or why the facts are in doubt.

how they cope; how they overcome

The best cataloger's operate under the premise that classical music is food for the soul; no good classical music should be lost. Catalogers are partners in a grand enterprise; getting all of it and getting it all right is paying homage to music and to musicians.

A cataloger will usually specialize in the works of a single composer. In most instances, cataloging the life work of a master composer is the cataloger's over-weaning passion; he may well make the task of cataloging one composer his life's work.

The mistakes and omissions that appear in catalogs are just as frustrating to the cataloger as they are to catalog users—even more so. The job of cataloger requires an unusual capacity for attention to detail and demands complete commitment; it consumes endless hours of painstaking research and detective work. There are many reasons for the unknowns, omissions, gaps, and errors found in these catalogs. theyillustrate why the cataloger's job can be complex at times and why exhaustive research may be sometimes be required to unearth and verify facts.

Is it any wonder that detective work is part and parcel with the task of research and compilation? To make their findings, in many cases catalogers diligently, even fervently, search the darkened corners and crevices of musty libraries, music school garrets, monastery back rooms, and closets. If it weren't for catalogers and other scholars, the number of great, near great, and humdrum manuscripts recovered from libraries, museums, schools, and other sources would be a fraction of what it is today; the world would know much less about the lives and times of their creators.

Given that the work is so hard, what motivates a cataloger? He loves his work. Music in general and the works of his special composer are usually his reason for being. We owe catalogers a large debt of gratitude.

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