Arts & Culture

Settling scores

6 min read

Exhibit, reception celebrate arrival of Solti archives

When Harvard acquired the archives of conductor Sir Georg Solti in May, the Loeb Music Library had many reasons to celebrate.

Solti, a Hungarian best known for conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is widely regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, earning the record for most Grammy Awards before his death in 1997.

But as the musicians and scholars from Harvard and Greater Boston who gathered at the Loeb Music Library on Wednesday (Oct. 26) would attest, the archives are much more than a boon for historians. They also represent an insight into the art and science of conducting, thanks to Solti’s extensive and meticulous notetaking on his many scores.

And thanks to Harvard, those browned pages are already being digitized and put online for budding conductors around the world.

Whether Solti was studying a new score or preparing for a performance or recording of a score he already knew, he always purchased a new copy and annotated it extensively. As a result, the collection has elicited equal parts excitement, awe, and trepidation for the librarians and scholars who have set out to catalog and study it.

“All of us agree these are the most marked-up scores we have ever seen,” said Sarah Adams, Loeb’s acting Richard F. French Librarian and acting curator of the Archive of World Music. The cocktail hour honored Solti’s widow, Lady Solti, who was visiting the archives’ new home at Harvard for the first time.

This past summer, the library began to digitize the scores for scholars, students, conductors, and musicians.

“We’re already seeing a stream of visitors who would like to come and consult the scores, and more often than not they’re interested in seeing very particular passages to see what Solti did in that instance,” Adams said.

The archives — the first full ones from a conductor to be housed at Harvard — represent a shift in thinking for Harvard Library, said Thomas Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music.

“This University is finally beginning to understand the importance of performance in the study of the performing arts,” Kelly said. “Mostly we have scores that are there waiting to become music. Now we have scores … that have become music.”

Harvard’s ability and eagerness to put the scores online for a global audience was the deciding factor in finding the Solti archives a home, Lady Solti said. The Solti family agreed they should work with a university that could digitize the archives, and in 2008 they began talks with library staff at Harvard.

Finally, after being gathered from locations around the world, being classified and boxed in the Soltis’ London apartment, and getting mixed up again in a moving company mishap, the papers arrived at Harvard this past spring.

“It was all fraught with great excitement,” Lady Solti said with a laugh. “These scores were like my baby. It’s very difficult for an old nanny to hand over her child.”

The reception marked not just the acquisition of the papers and Lady Solti’s visit, but also the opening of an exhibit at the library, “Music first and last: Scores from the Sir Georg Solti Archive.” The exhibit displays his scores (and his famed red pencil) alongside his surprisingly candid reactions to the performances.

Most of his thoughts — his “fears and anxieties” over a Schoenberg piece; his feeling of being haunted by Mozart during a performance at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the composer’s funeral was held — were taken from his memoirs, said Robert Dennis, recordings librarian at Loeb, who curated the exhibit with the help of the Weissman Preservation Center.

“There was no pretense at all,” Dennis said of the writings of Solti, whom Harvard awarded with an honorary degree in 1979. “He was a mensch — you could tell he just loved working with people.”

The crowd was full of musicians, professors, and scholars from around Boston, who turned out see the scores in the flesh and to meet the guest of honor. Hugh Wolff ’75, head of orchestras at the New England Conservatory, called the exhibit a fascinating teaching tool.

“My students will be coming out here,” Wolff said.

Solti’s scores show students firsthand that conducting is not just an artistic act but a highly intellectual undertaking as well, said Federico Cortese, a senior lecturer on music who is using the Solti materials for a course on Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

“It’s very humbling but also very inspiring,” Cortese said. “There’s always something exciting about seeing the work of a great man, whatever the field.”

Harvard students have already begun to take advantage of the collection. Matt Aucoin, a Kirkland House senior who turned up for the reception, grew up listening to Solti’s recordings. Now, he said, he’s studying Solti’s marked-up copy of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” which he will conduct for the Dunster House Opera Society’s production next spring.

“His notes are immensely practical,” Aucoin said, like those of “someone who had never seen or heard it.”

The finding wouldn’t surprise diehard fans of Solti, who once told an interviewer he liked to wait at least 10 years before returning to a piece he’d already conducted, according to Helen Shenton, executive director of the Harvard Library. Even then, Solti said, he would never rely on his old notes.

“That’s the only way to keep it fresh,” Shenton quoted for the crowd. “A piece you play again and again is a Xerox copy.”

For young conductors now studying Solti’s work, the continual joy of the discovery seemed to come through on the page.

“It’s a thrill,” Aucoin said.

That sort of student engagement with his aging, hash-marked scores is exactly what Solti would have wanted, his widow told the crowd.

“He loved to share what he was doing,” she said, “and the thought that these scores would be shared with young people, with young musicians, and eventually with musicians all over the world, that would have been his dream.”