Guest Post by Matthew Mugmon: Learning to decipher archival documents, one letter (or number) at a time

August 7, 2010 at 10:43 am 6 comments

“Roemer Viggscher Straatzi”

Six months ago, I would have paid you big bucks if you could have told me what that meant.

It comes from notes I took during a trip to Paris last winter, where I scoped out the Nadia Boulanger collection at the Bibliothèque national.  My goal then (as now): to figure out why Boulanger — the multi-faceted French musician who became famous for teaching countless American composers — attended the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam in 1920.  Was she there primarily as a VIP?  As a foreign journalist?  (She did write a review shortly afterward.)  As a special guest of her friend Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra?  And what were the consequences of her visit?

In the Mahler literature, Boulanger’s name is sometimes mentioned as one of the guests — but never as one of the more important ones, like Arnold Schoenberg or Paul Stefan.  It intrigued me, though, that Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland spoke of Boulanger’s having included Mahler’s music in their lessons with her in the early 1920s.  And one of Copland’s most important proteges was Leonard Bernstein, to whom many give credit for popularizing Mahler in the 1960s.  So learning more about the context of Boulanger’s introduction of Mahler to Copland ought to provide a new spin on our understanding of the afterlife of Mahler’s music.

The mysterious “Roemer Viggscher Straatzi” citation came from a note in her datebook from April 25, 1920, around two weeks before the festival would begin (May 6), and three weeks before she’d arrive in Amsterdam (May 13 or 14).  The full entry, according to my notes: “Van Rees / Roemer Viggscher Straatzi / Amsterdam / m’offrent hospitalité”.

I knew that “Roemer Viggscher Straatzi” had to be a street name, and that “Van Rees” had probably written Boulanger a letter offering her a place to stay.  But a Google search of “Roemer Viggscher Straatzi” turned up a “Did you mean: Roemer Visscherstraat” — a street in the charming Old West part of Amsterdam, about a mile north of the Concertgebouw, where the festival was held.  So what’s with “Straatzi”?  Why “Viggscher” and not “Visscher”?  Who were the “Van Rees”?   Were they well-known Dutch Mahlerites?  Who was more confused?  Me or Nadia Boulanger?

Me, it turns out.  A second trip, from which I’ve just returned, helped sort everything out.  I started at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, where I came across organizational documents from the 1920 Mahler festival.  I was happy enough to find a catalog of Amsterdam addresses where foreign guests would be staying, along with some lists of invitees from different countries.  One typed sheet (typed sheets are always easier to read) showed that Boulanger indeed stayed on Roemer Visscherstraat, and I even got an address (21) and a host name (W. V. Rees).   A quick search of Dutch family records revealed that the residents were William Herman Van Rees (a banker and the son of Concertgebouw board member Richard van Rees ) and his wife Carry Pierson.  One mystery solved.

Roemer Visscherstraat 21

(Nadia Boulanger’s Amsterdam home for a few days in 1920)

Location on Google Maps

My next stop was a return to the Bibliothèque national, where I revisited the Boulanger datebooks.  I felt an odd combination of self-disgust and satisfaction when I looked again at April 25.  It was as clear as day: “Roemer Viggscher Straatzi” was, obviously, “Roemer Visscherstraat 21.”  I’m not sure what was more helpful in getting me to see this — a few extra months of experience reading Boulanger’s handwriting in various other archives, or my fortuitous run-in with Jeanice Brooks, who happened to be working with some of the same materials I should have been, at the microfilm reader next to mine.  She pointed out to me Boulanger’s odd-looking, elongated “s,” which I clearly took as a “g” last winter.  Who knows how I got an extra “s.”  And I have no good excuse for transcribing “21” as “zi.”

Those mistakes seem tiny, though, next to another one.  In fact, I only looked closely at the datebook again because of another tip from Professor Brooks: she saw Willem Mengelberg’s name several times in the entries during the months leading up to the Mahler festival.  Boulanger indicated having received a letter from Mengelberg in January, 1920, in which he asked her for lists of critics and composers.  “I’ve seen that letter,” I thought.  “But it was from June, not January.”  Indeed, on my previous trip, I did find a letter from Mengelberg to Boulanger, dated (according to my notes) June 6, 1920.  So when I looked at the letter again this time around, I wasn’t surprised at all to find that it was clearly “Jan,” not June.  Error strikes again.

This was a much bigger fix, since it demonstrated to me that the list of French composers and critics Mengelberg asked Boulanger for in the letter was directly connected to the Mahler festival.  Specifically, Mengelberg wanted Boulanger to build a list of French invitees for the May festival, about five months beforehand (January), and not a month after (June).  Other documents I’d seen at the Concertgebouw archives in Amsterdam were now coming into focus.  If Boulanger was indeed the orchestra’s French go-to person, it makes sense that one handwritten list of French invitees and their addresses I saw in Amsterdam had Boulanger’s name as the first entry, at the top.  Composer Florent Schmitt may have acted as the festival’s official French representative, as he was the French signatory to the “Manifesto of the Foreign Guests at the Mahler Festival.”  But Boulanger was, perhaps, the orchestra’s primary French contact point.

It remains to be seen what all these details reveal about the transmission of ideas about Mahler’s music and its legacy.  But I can only hope that Boulanger was more careful with her Mahler when she taught it than I was with deciphering her handwriting the first time around.

Entry filed under: archives, Guest Blog. Tags: , , , , , , .

Musicology Job Wiki Roundup 2010 – Some Thoughts Brian Wilson Reimagines Rhapsody in Blue


  • 1. Ali  |  August 7, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Excellent post, Matt, and interesting topic! I must say though, as twentieth century musicologists, we tend to escape the hairsplitting difficulties of reading Kurret. I must say though, if you can get through Alban Berg’s handwriting, you can read anything.

  • 2. Kendra Leonard  |  August 7, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Deciphering NB’s handwriting is one of my least favorite tasks, ever. Every time I have to begin anew, learning all of the tics and idiosyncrasies of it.

  • 3. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  August 7, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for this post, Matt. An important component of musicological research is good detective work, but the process isn’t something we often have the opportunity to share. A mislaid (or in your case) misread clue can lead us in frustrating circles. As you’ve communicated here, sometimes it takes just the right combination of time, people, perseverance, and google. I’m excited to learn what consequences this new found information has on this portion of your dissertation.

    I too have had some luck with Googling around an unidentifiable annotation from the archives. Most recently I encountered some Spanish annotations above the solo piano solo line of a Rhapsody in Blue score in the Library of Congress collection: “Yo” and “Amparito.” I knew that the former meant “I” or “me,” but the couldn’t for the life of figure out the latter. A Spanish dictionary yielded no clues, but Googling “Amparito and Rhapsody” led to a closed eBay auction that, in turn solved the mystery. “Yo,” it turns out, was the Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi and “Amparito” was an affectionate derivation of “Amparo,” his younger sister. The score, I’ve deduced, was used for their 1945, two-piano recording of the Rhapsody. There is more to the story, but I digress…

  • 4. Matt Mugmon  |  August 8, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for all the comments. Ryan, I’m looking forward to hearing more about that story. Kendra, maybe we can collaborate on a study of NB’s handwriting, complete with images, and make this easier for everyone in the future.

  • 5. John McKay  |  August 8, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Great story, Matt.

    Google is an amazing source for figuring out errors and misreadings, whether they are yours or those in a document hundreds of years old.

    A while back I was reading through a section of Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis (1650), and I stopped to try and puzzle out some tuning calculations. Always trying to show off amazing things, Kircher included some incredibly large ratios (some involving numbers more than 20 digits long) to show increasingly obscure musical intervals.

    Google is of course useful as a calculator as well. I started typing in some of the ratios of these really large numbers to see what their value was. I had already discovered that Kircher had apparently miscalculated some of the ratios, so I wanted to see how far off they were.

    Amazingly, I got a hit in Google Books for one of the miscalculated ratios. (What are the odds for two random 20-digit numbers?) It was to a recent edition of an obscure old German mathematical treatise. Kircher had mentioned the name of the author, but knowing this treatise also contained the miscalculation led me to look closer — and it turns out Kircher paraphrased some 20 pages or so of Musurgia universalis’s tuning discussions from this mathematical treatise.

    Kircher apparently had copied these giant numbers without checking them himself. Moreover, it turns out that he actually miscopied one of them himself, leading to a one-digit error (by Kircher, or the typesetter) in a number that is already the result of an erroneous calculation by someone else (the author of the German math treatise).

    Obviously such chains of errors are well-known to those who spend time constructing manuscript stemmata, but they can be much harder to find in cases like this that span treatises in different disciplines in an era with a profusion of printed works. Resources like Google and Google Books can not only help correct errors, but also to track them in new and fortuitous ways.

  • 6. Jeremy Coleman  |  August 18, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Thanks for this interesting article. There is a celebrated case of mistaken orthographic identity in one of Beethoven’s manuscripts (I forget which). At the end of the last bar there is a double-bar line (as convention dictates); but here Beethoven scribbles over it a wavy line, tapering towards the end. Early editors interpreted this at an attempt to erase the double-bar line, whereas in fact it has been shown to be a throwback to Renaissance and Baroque orthography, and served to bolster the sense of closure, not to undermine it.

    I hope that this comment bears some relevance to the main article.


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