An Ancient Crisis in Music Bibliography: The Need for Incipits

By LaRue, Jan; Cannata, David | Notes, December 1993 | Go to article overview

An Ancient Crisis in Music Bibliography: The Need for Incipits


LaRue, Jan, Cannata, David, Notes


To book-lovers, the name of Gutenberg is sacred. To music bibliographers, however, his magnificent achievement may contain an element of dissonance. Owing to sheer numbers, the methods of conservation for books have established conventions for music as well. Yet the unthinking application of book handling to music manuscripts (and probably to some music prints as well) has raised a host of problems. Through the centuries, the domination of "book-thinking" has instituted many practices unsuitable to manuscript material, including methods of binding, trimming, repairing, and, perhaps worst of all, misguided modernization. One would think it eminently desirable to replace old coversheets or boards with strong, clean, attactive folders--who could object to that? Unfortunately, the ragged covers so eagerly discarded often contain irreplaceable information (names of composers, copyists, and owners, often with dates; institutions that have collected the material, with their seals, leatherwork, library classification marks or numbers; performance locations, with dates and personnel involved; watermarks and other paper characteristics). A neglected class of evidence that might be called "analyzable dirt" may tell a small but important tale. For example, does the sand used for blotting ink found in many Venetian manuscripts come from the Lido or the mainland? With the development of neutron activation techniques this list could be greatly extended.

Returning to the ancient and continuing crisis in music bibliography: entries for printed books are typically arranged by author or title. If we apply this thinking to music manuscripts and prints, the result too often is a many-faceted question mark: what if the composer's name is missing; what if it is the wrong composer; what if the genre is incorrect; what if the key is misinterpreted? By comparison, the relatively happy uniformity of book title pages makes possible a genre of title-dependent bibliography utterly unsuitable for materials in which each item is unique, a rare situation in books, but relatively common in music manuscripts.

Music-bibliographical entries that use titles like "Symphony in D" as the identifying principle obviously create a quagmire of possibilities: which symphony in D is involved? We must often examine several items to find out.(1) What if a work in D-minor has mistakenly crept into the list? And what do we do if the item is temporarily misplaced, circulated to a reader, or on vacation at the bindery? We may never find out which is which. In great works of bibliography such as Eitner's Quellen-Lexikon, many entries contain the same title listed both as print and manuscript.(2) Is it actually the same work? We must examine both versions to know the truth. The British Union Catalogue of Early Music, a highly sophisticated author/title bibliography, still leaves us nearly helpless in areas such as collections, duplicate titles, and doubtful works.(3) Patient and affluent researchers in other countries may attempt to penetrate this thicket of dysinformation by sending for the relevant microfilm, only to discover that the photographers themselves sometimes cannot find the right work. The same conventional title may have been used for several works, or worse still, applied to a different work in the same key. One often feels a schizophrenia of admiration for the enormous effort that lies behind a large work of bibliography, at the same time combined with despair that its title identifications often do not suffice to locate a particular musical work. (Even the principle of organization by title can break down: the most nerve-wracking word in German bibliography is "Sammelwerke." And in Italian catalogues, all kinds of vocal works--even arias--may sometimes be found under the frustratingly general title, "Inni," the word itself an easy source of misunderstanding, since it sounds and looks so different from "hymns.")

Experiences of this sort did not deter RISM from issuing volumes of titles without sufficient further musical identification. …

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An Ancient Crisis in Music Bibliography: The Need for Incipits
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