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What happens when you find a long-lost violin concerto in a library basement?

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Last year, University of Toronto music librarian James Mason was spending a lot of time on two different projects. One was a gargantuan effort to digitize the library's collection of scores, correspondence, photos and concert programmes that once belonged to the legendary Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow. The other was a bit of comparatively unexciting database clean-up.

One day, as Mason was perusing the cells of a massive spreadsheet while working on that second, less exciting project, he noticed something odd. Four or five of the library's records were all out of sorts. Cells that should have had information in them were blank; cells that should have been blank were full of stuff. And, as he kept trying to work out what the heck was going on, one name emerged again and again: Kathleen Parlow.

If Mason hadn't been working on the Parlow collection at the time, he might not have thought anything of it. But he was, so he got curious. He descended into the deep, dark bowels of the U of T music library in search of answers — and he emerged with the handwritten manuscript of a violin concerto that's been thought lost for over a century.

The concerto is by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen: not a household name by any stretch, but a hugely important figure in Norwegian musical history around the turn of the 20th century. It was only ever performed once, in Holland, with Kathleen Parlow as the soloist — thus the connection. It had found its way to U of T along with her belongings, but somehow ended up stranded from the rest of the collection.

Since the historic discovery, Mason, his fellow librarian Houman Behzadi and acting head librarian Suzanne Meyers Sawa have been working flat-out, spearheading efforts to re-introduce the piece to the public. It's scheduled to be re-premiered by Norwegian virtuoso Henning Kraggerud this July, at the annual conference of the International Musicological Society.

I reached Mason and Meyers Sawa by phone, to tell me the whole fascinating story together. It's a rollicking tale of incredible coincidence, vigorous verification, and the minutia of music library cataloguing. Strap in.

What exactly is that basement room like, where you found the lost score?

Mason: It’s a concrete bunker with no windows.

Meyers Sawa: Bad ventilation. It’s cold in the winter.

Mason: Poor lighting.

Meyers Sawa: It’s cold in the summer too, actually.

Mason: You can see the pipes in the ceiling, all exposed.

Meyers Sawa: The original function of it was as a large storeroom. There was nothing in there except some old, old, shelves from the former record room in the old library. However, of course, we’re running out of space for everything. So, we now have all of our LP library down there, which is over 130,000, and the performance collection [of musical scores]. That’s where James went to find this score.

James, when you found it, did you realize immediately what it was or did it take a while to hit you?

Mason: When I looked at it, it was clearly handwritten. This was a manuscript score. This wasn't something that came from [noted music publisher] Schott, or whatever. So right away, I knew something was up. A manuscript score is always cool. But I didn’t know it was one that had been lost for 100 years, that people have been searching for, or one that was from a composer of that calibre.

Suzanne, what’s the process like when you find a lost work?

Meyers Sawa: After I verified that it was really Halvorsen, and we all stopped jumping up and down [laughs], we digitized the score and all the parts. We have an agreement with the Norwegian Musical Heritage Project, and they are in the process of creating a critical edition. So, the score itself will not be available to the public until July of this year.

James and Houman and I had prepared a paper about the digitizing of this collection, and the importance of Kathleen Parlow in the history of music — as a woman, as a violinist, as a wunderkind, as a representative of Canada to the world — and we presented this at the Canadian Association of Music Libraries meeting last June. Then Houman and I travelled to New York, and we read James’s part of the paper to another group: the International Association of Music Libraries.

At the end of the conference we were all at the closing reception, at this wonderful little club overlooking the East River and the UN building. It was really fun. And, I found myself standing in a line and there comes this man named Per Dahl, who happened to be the head of the International Musicological Society. [Laughs.] He’s also Norwegian.

Now I, being somewhat gregarious, thought ‘Well! I think maybe I’ll tell him about this concerto!’ Mr. Dahl got more than excited: ‘Hey! This is exciting! Can we do this? Can we do that? Can we do that?!? Yes! Come to us! We’re having the IMS meeting in Stavanger next July!’

Such a wonderful sequence of events that began with James working with a database.

Mason: So many parts have just lined up perfectly. If Suzanne didn't meet somebody in a line, or if I hadn't been working on the Parlow collection while I was working on that other database… So many things had to be in the right order in order for it to happen.

So, after the premiere of the concerto in Norway this summer, what comes next?

Meyers Sawa: We’re trying to find a way to have a performance here in Toronto. I think it would be fantastic to have one here. But, we agreed that we thought it was more important for it to be first premiered in Norway.

Mason: Then we’ll go back to being regular librarians! Dusting the shelves. [Both laugh.] This has all been very exciting for us.

Meyers Sawa: I’m still on a high!

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