Interview with doctor Martin Haltrich

Lukáš Pavlica Jiří Čevela Rozhovory 1/2019


Dear Doctor Haltrich, thank you for taking the time for a small interview for a student magazine at the Musicology Institute of Masaryk University Musicologica.
You work as a librarian and archivist for the Klosterneuburg Monastery in Lower Austria, and university students would undoubtedly wonder what this job involves. The lecture you held today at Masaryk University focuses on the topic of musical manuscripts in modern digital age. How does the daily routine of a scientist and historian-archivist look like?
Thank you for the invitation. Klosterneuburg is an old monastery with a long tradition of research and intellectual life. In Lower Austria we have about ten monasteries which are still active, but most of these monasteries don’t have the resources for research. But in Klosterneuburg we find ourselves in the lucky situation that the convent is very interested in scientific activities and also has the resources to hire secular people to work with the collection. I work with two colleagues: one curator of the art collection and one archivist, I’m the librarian and also the archivist of the musical collection. Part of our work is looking for ideas for projects for young academics.

How does it differ from the past years and what remains the same?
This is a very nice question, because when I started working in the Klosterneuburg library six years ago, it was a very quiet place. There was no computer, so everything was done manually and written down on paper and index cards. Naturally, my first action was to buy a computer. We had to start from the very beginning with cataloguing and digitizing. On the other hand the monastery has a very important department of manuscripts and the Austrian Academy of Sciences has developed different databases with Klosterneuburg sources, for example for watermarks or medieval manuscripts. We could use these projects and work very efficient. Now, six years later, we have about 350 thousand digital images, the library is very crowded and almost everything is connected by computers. I would say the one thing that has changed the most is the way we handle the original manuscripts. The material used to be sort of closed off and only accessible for experts, but now we have many people of different interests who get in touch with the originals. And we work with students. We organize international summer schools and students can do an internship and acquire skills such as digitizing, to later work in other institutions or libraries. We also have a very flexible digital infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, digital technologies make it easier for researchers to work and collaborate, but do they not as well take away certain uniqueness of specific cultural institutions? Do monasteries (and possibly other institutions) work actively in this process, or rather try to keep the valuable material under cover and only for themselves?
It depends, the mentality is changing. But I think there are two different types of institutions – one thing are the state’s archives, who are dependant on earning money through, for example, requests from researchers. Personally, I believe nobody has the copyright to an autograph older than 100 years, so at least for a research it should be easier and cheaper to get to the material. The second part are private institutions like monasteries and other private archives, they are often too small to have a professional infrastructure for providing sources. We should have public funding to support them. It could also be the mindset of a generation; I would say that older generations generally try to keep the sources under cover, or ‘save’ it for later when they suppose to have time for publication. Let’s say I’m a researcher and there is an undiscovered manuscript by Schubert in the National Library – the old mentality would be to try to keep it from the public eye, so I can work on it later and become famous for it. The new mentality should be to find colleagues from different fields and work on the new source as a group, because in my opinion teamwork may create better insights quickly and (hopefully) with more fun.

Are there any pitfalls or problems associated with the digitization of musical (or other) sources?
Well, in mass digitization books are much easier to handle, because they have pages or folios that are usually connected and consecutively numbered, but the musical manuscripts we have for example in the music archives are different. Every handwritten sheet music is individual and can vary greatly in, for example, size. For choir music you can have 15 different pieces of the soprano part which are the same… but aren’t. (laugh) Because maybe in the time it was used some musician might have put some performance notes on it. So you have to decide more often if it is worthy to digitize all of the almost identical scores.

And do you digitize all the parts then?
It depends, sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. But it is important to document and justify the decision. The digitization itself is one thing, just the starting point, but with the amount of data, you need a lot or resources for processing and maintaining later on. The decision of quantity in mass digitisation should be not everything that is possible, but all that is necessary.

Digital technologies allow the sharing of discoveries across scientific fields, do you think that due to this greater interconnection we can expect more interdisciplinary collaboration? Have you seen these tendencies already, or is it just a dream of the future?
I think in humanities it’s still a future dream, but it is on us to start this future. We started a project – Kloster_Musik_Sammlungen – with the Danube Universtity in Krems as the leading institution and the Masaryk University in Brno as the international partner and our first goal is to take pictures of scores, historical sources and inventories and provide them with basic metadata. The next step is to call attention to different narratives and invite people and institutions to collaboration. If you look for example at Europeana collections on the internet there are millions of photos and other materials, but the problem is that you don’t know much about these sources. Yes, there are narratives created by different projects, but it is difficult to find out something about the context and whether the data are complete or not. On the other hand, you have all these really hardcore research databases created by the first generation of researchers in the 1990s and early 2000s. They put a lot of data on the internet, but these old databases have several problems – only researchers can use them, because only they know the system. If you are a musicologist, you might be satisfied, but if you are a musician who wants to play something that has not been published, you will be very frustrated. So, I think we should do much more work on use cases and possibilities of providing data for more than one discipline.

You participate in the Kloster_Musik_Sammlungen project, could you briefly describe its origins, goals and results?
Well, the origin was that I bought a computer as mentioned. (laugh) I found the musical archive in a very poor condition, and nobody paid attention to it. In four years, I had two requests, and both were about an inventory from 1780. Some changes needed to be made, so, we have found new rooms and a new storage system for the musical archive and I thought – what now? The main part of the archive, are handwritten copies of scores from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. There are also autographs but not from the most famous composers. I am a historian and therefore I have respect for all kind of manuscripts not only so called originals or autographs and I thought that we should do something to bring more attention to these sources. So, we developed cooperation with two other Austrian monasteries – Melk and Göttweig – with a hypothesis that they should have more or less the same music pieces we have in Klosterneuburg. Until then there was only a partial research on some more important composers in these musical collections, but nothing focusing on the whole music tradition in monasteries. However, there is more content in the collections than copies of Mozart and Beethoven, as we have a list of 440 composers that are present in our collection. We realized that a significant portion of composers can be found in all three musical collections, many of them were local composers – like organists or choirmasters. So, we developed this project, with our goal to combine classical musical research and historical research with research on the collections themselves. We would like to acquire information not only about the people who wrote these scores, but also about those who performed the pieces. For example, Klosterneuburg is about 12km from the centre of Vienna, so the violinist who played the first symphony with Beethoven there, might have played a mass from Haydn in the Klosterneuburg monastery several days later. Therefor we try to unravel the networks. Also, every monastery had a boy’s choir, we still don’t know much about it at this point, but we have lists and can already tell that a lot of reputable musicians started their musical career as Sängerknaben – choirboys. It was the place to start a musical education, since the monasteries had the resources and were also in need of musical activities. In Klosterneuburg, we also have a great documentation – a list of the music played in liturgy on each Sunday from 1840 to 1929 – these types of sources will also be included in the project.

How is the project cooperating with other countries within Europe? What other goals sets the project for the future?
We started with three monasteries in Lower Austria, but we are very happy that our international partner is Masaryk University, where we collaborate with Jana Perutková and Vladimír Maňas. The project was granted for two years and I really hope we can prolong this for at least one more year. So, in these three years we try to build the digital infrastructure and database, the next step would be to integrate other Lower Austrian monasteries, as well as sources from Czech monasteries. We would really like to become international and expand because the musical networks did not stop at any borders.

How were individual monasteries selected? Was participation in this project somehow limited?
The first connections were simple, we were three archivists who knew each other – musicologist Johannes Prominczel from Melk, art historian Bernhard Rameder from Göttweig and me, but apart from our own connections, our musical collections are more or less the same. The monasteries held different, but similar positions in the musical life in Lower Austria. In the next steps we would like to cooperate with Heiligenkreuz. The initial thought was that we cannot start with all the monasteries; we had to start with three and later – once everything is settled – try to add more.

Although most people probably imagine a monastery as a purely ascetic place, it is well known that clerics enjoyed the beauty of secular music. But how significant was its place in the music collections of individual monasteries, specifically in Klosterneuburg?
It was very important! (laugh) The pictures we have of monasteries are full of clichés, depending on the era we are talking about, but we tend to forget that everyone associated with it had a specific individual mentality. The convent in Klosterneuburg for example was really well connected with the elites in Vienna. There are some examples like when Ferdinand Lukas Schubert, the brother of Franz Schubert, visited Klosterneuburg and took his brother’s scores, which they played together with the musicians from the monastery, and then they played a quintet from Beethoven after a shared lunch. But we still don’t know much about these events, only glimpses. But we can definitely say that in the 19th century they had a lot of printed secular works – songs, quartets, piano trios… Before 1850 it’s difficult to say, because for example in Klosterneuburg not many scores survived.

Were any of the local regens chories or even monks and canons active composers? Has any of them exceeded local significance?
Yes, for example Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, who was a choir boy in Klosterneuburg, where he was born (he was also a singer in the gymnasium in Melk), but there are more composers like Anton Komenda, who came to Klosterneuburg as a boy and became an organist as well as a composer. We do not really know if his works were played, for proper research has yet to be done. But his autographs can be found in the musical collection. In Melk there was P. Marian Paradeiser who is sort of a local hero, but there are more.

In your opinion, is there any type of historical source that is unjustly being ignored by music historians?
Yes, a lot! (laugh) I think the copyists aren’t really all that well researched, but they were the people who held nearly every score in their hands and knew its origin. The musical education could also be examined a little bit further – in many cases, singing in a boys choir was the very beginning of a composers career. But I am no music historian, so there might be plenty of other possibilities.

What is the main focus of your scientific interest?
I’m not a scientist in this particular matter, but I try to use my position as an archivist to motivate researchers to develop ideas to look outside the box. Before I started as a librarian in Klosterneuburg I was a researcher at the Institute of Medieval Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences for some years and acquired a lot of experiences with medieval manuscripts, watermarks, databases and digitisation. Currently I am associated with some projects and I am still in touch with the scientific community, but my aim is not to publish three or four important papers per year. I want to connect scientists, teachers and students and sources from different disciplines. The problem is that many researches conduct great work, but then they put it on lists and in books accessible to the community and they don’t communicate with the rest of the population. I think in humanities, we should focus on doing more and more collaborations. I would be glad if the project of ours was able to combine researched facts with the accessibility to other fields of human studies and to share this information with the public. I feel like a lot of researchers think they have to publish projects only in their final forms, but I believe we should share the process itself as well.

Is there a place for improving interdisciplinary and international cooperation? If so, where should we start? What should we change?
I believe we should think about the topics that are relevant in our society and I wish the humanities would be more self-confident, because there is so much information, so much knowledge to explore and to share. We should think of the bigger picture and find points that could be interesting not only for researchers of this specific field, but rather for everybody.

Thank you for your time! It was a very lovely talk! I wish you the best for the Kloster_Musik_Sammlungen project!

Photo ​© Walter Skokanitsch

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