From ON Magazine
By Dr. Ludmilla Leibman
Having been raised in St. Petersburg and becoming a professional musician there, I have entered the historic St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall hundreds of times as a listener. Often I stayed after the concert with my conservatory classmates, waiting at the exit door used by the performers.
Our hope was to catch a glimpse of a famous soloist or conductor and to offer a last round of applause as the performers left the Hall on their way to the grand "Europe" hotel across the street.
In all those years, I never visited the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Library. But my first visit, last November, was a memorable one.
"I will show you our main treasure, 'Philharmoniana,'" were the first words from Galina Leonidovna Retrovskaya, director of the library, after she ushered me through the heavy front door. Like a student who has forgotten her lessons, my heart dropped because I had no idea what the word "Philharmoniana" meant, and I was afraid to let her know that. Hardly allowing me time to take off my coat, while nonetheless reminding me to change from my boots to clean, dry shoes, Galina Leonidovna led me into the reading room, which resembled a private study, with a grand piano in one corner and beautiful antique bookcases along each wall. These ornate redwood cases have held musical scoresrare editions of historic valuesince the day the library was established in 1882. We stormed through this room into another which housed row upon row of open shelves, also filled with musical scores and folders containing printed concert programs.
An old-fashioned but highly effective information system
The director proceeded to a window overlooking Mikhailovskaya Street, stopped in front of a large card catalogue case, and, pointing to its numbered drawers, pronounced, "That's what we call 'Philharmoniana.'" As she then explained, the reference catalogueconsisting of 250,000 cards stored in 155 small drawerscaptures detailed information on every concert performance at the Philharmonic Hall since the State Petrograd Philharmonic was established in June 1921. (Petrograd and Leningrad were other names of St. Petersburg.) After each concert, information from the printed program was carefully entered into the Philharmoniana catalogue including the composer, the orchestra performing, the conductor and soloists, the titles and performance time of each piece, and the name of the musicologist who gave the pre-concert lecture.
"One can find anything about the Philharmonic concert life in these 155 drawers, all cross-referenced," said Galina Leonidovna. Then, looking at me inquisitively, she asked, "Have you been in the Philharmonic before?" Flustered, I explained that I had earned a cum laude degree in musicology from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and had given pre-concert lectures in the city's main venues, including the Philharmonic. "And what was your name back then, young lady?" was the next question. When I answered, Galina Leonidovna pulled out one of the small drawers, removed a card, and triumphantly announced, "Here you are, dear! On March 30th 1984, you did, indeed, lecture at the Leningrad Philharmonic!"
I felt that I had passed an important authenticity test. I was also impressed by how quickly the director was able to retrieve this small piece of information, which was nearly a quarter of a century old and buried among a quarter of a million cards.
A brief history of a long-lived cultural treasure
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Library were born in 1882, when the Court Musicians' Choira wind-instrument orchestrawas established on the orders of Emperor Alexander the Third. A passionate music lover and an accomplished cornet and three-valve saxhorn player, Alexander created the group so he could continue to make music after becoming Emperor.
The first director of the Court Musicians' Choir, Baron Carl Carlovich Shtackelberg, immediately began acquiring musical scores for use by the wind-instrument orchestra. But shortly afterwards, he added a string section to form a full symphony orchestra, and the library's holdings were expanded to reflect that change. By 1917, which marked the final collapse of Imperial rule, the library had grown to almost 12,000 itemsthe largest collection of symphonic music in Russia-and included rare editions of old masters as well as contemporary composers. At present, the library holds more than 150,000 items, including original manuscripts of compositions by Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.
Writing in the margins
During my visit, I noticed a stark difference between the Philharmonic Librarywhose purpose has always been to provide orchestra musicians with musical scores to prepare for upcoming performancesand the library at my alma mater, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which is devoted to research and study. At the Conservatory, students were warned not to write on the musical scores they checked out for a week or two before an exam. In contrast, at the Philharmonic Library, musicians were encouraged to write down instructions given by the conductor during rehearsals to assist them in following the conductor's interpretation during the actual performance. Some scores have written comments made by the conductors themselves, including for performances conducted by composers Johannes Strauss and Claude Debussy.
My visit to the library also made me realize how important it is to preserve the performance history of this prominent cultural institution. An initiative now under way will digitize information collected in the Philharmoniana and make it accessible via the Internet, opening enormous possibilities for research. For example, the concert information scrupulously entered into the catalogues will allow scholars to analyze the shifts in musical preferences, trends, and tendencies-known as "repertoire politics" in the world of classical concertsfrom season to season and over the course of nearly a century.
Timing is everything
This unique knowledge base will also satisfy the curiosity of music lovers who seek to know who was conducting what and when, who were the famous foreign soloists invited to Russia, and what music was performed during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II.
As I explained to Galina Leonidovna and her colleague, library bibliographer Nadezhda Alekseevna Stepanova, my personal interest is in the area of musical timing: how the duration of a performance of the same composition differs from one conductor to another. Once again demonstrating the value of Philharmoniana, Nadezhda Alekseevna opened drawer number 3, titled "Chronograph," and pulled out cards from three different concerts spanning from 1938 to 1948. The music was the sameGlinka's "Waltz- Phantasy"but it took 8 minutes and 14 seconds (8:14) for the orchestra to perform under the baton of conductor Grikurov, 7:22 under conductor Golovanov, and 9:17 under conductor Gauk. Same music, same orchestra, but the timing was different. Why? The explanation lies hidden in the mysteries of one's personal and intuitive artistic approach to the written text.
The progress of preservation
The library's preservation initiative is moving ahead, but faces financial obstacles. An EMC CLARiiON storage system, donated by EMC Corporation's Heritage Trust Project, provides enough capacity to store the entire library collection. However, additional funding is needed to support the labor-intensive process of preparing and scanning individual pieces so they can be digitally stored. With funds provided by the St. Petersburg Cultural Committee, Galina Leonidovna Retrovskaya and her colleagues have chosen to digitize Philharmoniana first. To date, 17 of 155 drawers and 10,000 out of 250,000 catalogue cards have been entered into the system.
"We applied to the Ministry of Culture for a grant to complete digitizing of the Philharmoniana," said Natalia Drozdetskaya, Chief of the Philharmonic Department of Special Projects, at the end of our interview. "Wish us luck!"