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