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One of Europe’s biggest music libraries is about to be demolished

As part of the Dutch government’s plans to dismantle the Broadcast Music Centre in Hilversum – plans that also involve the abolition of an orchestra and chorus – one of the biggest sheet music libraries in western Europe is going to disappear.

Unless the MCO library can raise independent funding in the next nine months, the scores will be sold to dealers or turfed out into the street. About 5,000 have been digitized, the rest will be lost. You can read more about it here (in Dutch).

We have reported over and again about the tide of political philistinism that is threatening to inundate a millennium of culture in the Netherlands. There will be no burning of music books in Holland. They will simply vanish beneath a cold sea of indifference unless musicians organise an action plan to save the library and its legacy. Whatever became of the little boy with his finger in the dyke?

photo: Thea Derks interviewing Nicola Benedetti inside the MBO library

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  1. An unbelievable absurdity and a total lack of vision. Btw, the Dutch Broadcast Music Center is in Hilversum, not in

  2. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell – of whom I’m not a great fan spoke these words in the House of Commons:-

    “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place,

    which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice.

    Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.

    Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

    Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

    Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

    Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?

    Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

    Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

    I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place.

    Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

    In the name of God, go!”

    Do they have a Cromwell in Holland?

    • It’s an interesting fact that, for all his strictness about living, Cromwell very much enjoyed music.

  3. As an American I can only say: this is depressing! Please don’t become like the US!

    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      Yes! Please don’t use the US as a model. We are actively at work trying to erase the best of Indo-European culture and using gobs of money to do it (by purchase or by withholding).

  4. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    I have a suggestion regarding digitisation of any sheet music that is not already available, or known to be already available, in digitised form.

    My suggestion is based on the premise of taking action, itself based on the premise “how can X be done?” (not “CAN X be done?”: that is the wrong question).

    What is needed is a coalition of individuals who are of a mind to take practical steps. This entails people who can physically get to the library, and people who have organising, strategising, communicative, and networking skills. This latter group of people can of course exist anywhere in the world.

    You need I guess to start with communication and strategy. We’ll get to that.

    Some (many, all, none, hell I dunno) of you will be aware of the website called Internet Archive

    There is a wealth of digitised material on this website.

    I myself benefited from this website when I had to dismantle my own large personal library that took up a whole three bedroom house that I was renting. This comprised thousands of books, journals, journal articles, abstract printouts (literally reams of this stuff), and many thousands of files. It was a mammoth task that took me 18 months and nearly sent me broke. There was sensitive material among my collection, and at a time that Wikileaks was making a mockery of confidentiality I painstakingly destroyed anything remotely sensitive (and some books that in hindsight were sheer rubbish, so much so that I could not in conscience put them back out into the world, but which I did not know some 25 years prior when I started my intellectual journey). I killed three shredders in the process, and nearly went broke – but I did it. I had some occasional help with some aspects of my dismantling task, but the task of wading through the paperwork was mine alone, and could not be anyone else’s. The couple of friends who I let into my disintegrating world found what looked to them to be a mess each time they arrived: this was true, but what I tried to point out was that each time it was a different mess, such was the amount of material that each time I made progress, I had more material to spread around and wade through.

    Not only did I achieve the task: only just – but I did it – I also found some digitised material – out of print books in this case – that 25 years prior I had painstakingly tracked down via handwritten letters and postal notes around the world. This made my task more doable than it would otherwise have been, since for me, what I value is simply being able to access information so that I can think about things and work out that which I need to work out. The fact of some material being available online made it just that much more possible to make decisions about what to keep and not keep. This latter category included some real gems from an information perspective, which I would otherwise have equivocated about getting rid of.

    A similar situation may exist with the library in question. There are a number of things which I would want to know if I was involved in sorting such a place out. I would want to know what is already available online, or readily available elsewhere: this material is sacrificable, and there is no point wasting time and effort on it, over and above the time and effort it takes to sort through and ensure its availability elsewhere before getting rid of – and this doesn’t have to be destruction: you sell it or just give the bloody stuff away if someone wants it and some good can come of it.

    I would want to know what material is unique to this library, and not available elsewhere. Of that material, I would want to know what can be saved with any practical ease. I would get that material out as quickly as possible to a place where it can be sorted through at a later stage.

    IF there is material that cannot be saved with any practical ease, AND IF this material is not available in hardcopy and/or digital format elsewhere, I would set about digitising it.

    I’m guessing that some of this sort of process is going on already. But I would not assume this. I would enquire, and I would want to know what practical assistance I could give.

    The world of music is not one that I was fortunate enough to inhabit – that opportunity passed circa 1981, when changing life circumstances led me to drop several activities including some music lessons: so I just never got there, and probably never will now. So my search heuristics for material on the Internet Archive will not be as good as someone familiar with the field – familiarity with key search terms being perhaps the most important baseline for research in any field – and I don’t have the luxury of time to familiarise myself with relevant heuristics.

    But I did do a very simple search and found some examples to demonstrate the existence already of sheet music in this Internet Archive.

    For example, this Chopin score

    Or this from Beethoven

    Or Debussy

    So to the task at hand. Communication with the library is the start. What have they done, what needs to be done, what are they struggling with, etc. I would want to know what deadlines we are up against. Of these deadlines, I would want to know what is arbitrary (i.e. negotiable), and what is not – a great many deadlines are negotiable (even death these days – the ULTIMATE deadline!), and one must simply negotiate them, bearing in mind that such deadlines are not indefinitely avoidable – it is but a matter of buying time to do what needs doing.

    I would want to know the size of the task relative to the deadlines – there will be more than one deadline, and some deadlines will be more significant than others, in terms of ramifications. I would along the way simply get stuck in and do some practical work, and I would alternate between hard yakka and planning, since these are interdependent – the ease or difficulty of a given task will always feed back into the planning of that task, necessitating revision.

    These sorts of things I would do as one person. A coalition of people can do more. People on the ground, people wrapping their heads around the task, people liaising, communicating and networking. It can be done. Do people want to do it, is the real question. If they don’t, perhaps it doesn’t matter that much.

    • The largest classical music internet library, by far, is the stupendous collection of scores at the International Music Score Library Project. If it is out of Canadian and USA copyright, there’s a good chance that a piece is available there — IF somebody has uploaded it. But mention of copyright is the start of the major problem with any massive digital archiving scheme, as Google has found to its cost. Lots of music that you’d think would be out of copyright is not. Early music that has been newly published or edited, most 20th Century scores published after 1923 (Vaughan Williams, Britten, Shostakovich, much of Stravinsky etc.), even early 20th Century operas whose librettists sufficiently outlived the composers (Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges) are all NOT legally available online. And good luck finding the standard full scores of anything by Gershwin there, because of the longevity of his “editor,” Campbell-Watson. Much of the MCO library is probably already duplicated on the web. It’s true treasure trove would be any the scores (and related performance material) specially commissioned by them and unavailable elsewhere, and these would be so recent that they probably couldn’t be uploaded without permission by all involved. So while proposals to put everything up on the web are admirable and to be encouraged, 1. the work has already begun and 2. you’re eventually going to run into LAWYERS.


      PS: I’ve been a frequent contributor to the IMSLP forums, but they have been moribund lately. I encourage Slipped Disc subscribers to inject some life into the place.

    • Steve, you hit the nail on the head.
      “Do people want to do it, is the real question. If they don’t, perhaps it doesn’t matter that much.”

      Frequently, people shout a lot that they want to do it, when what they mean is that they want someone else to pay for them to do it, which isn’t quite the same thing.
      Given the number of musicians and music-lovers in Hilversum, I’d be surprised if much was ever actually lost: it doesn’t make sense to go to the effort of burning the stuff, much better to sell to the highest bidder, allow the musicians to take their pick, drop it on an unsuspecting museum or other state archive, university, music college… or whatever. A large performance centre that ceases to exist doesn’t really need a library; better that the contents go elsewhere where they might be used more, surely?

    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      This is a great plan and is scalable. We have to be steadfast in these matters of “fiscal concern” to counter with a commonwealth’s best asset= it’s skill set.
      Look to the collective talents ad skills and pursue the task at hand. What part of this work can be done without being physically at the site. those tasks can be accomplished then from anywhere in the world.

  5. What about the election held in Holland in September? Has the inclusion of the Labour Party in the new government not mitigated any of these slashes in the culture budget?

  6. Sir:

    This is dreadful news. Libraries with a substantial music section are already a rarity, even in major urban areas. Reducing this provision any further is nothing short of cultural and social vandalism.

    As a teenager, I spent many happy hours in a large municipal library (which required a modest train journey) scrutinising scores and specialist books, exploring a quantity of repertoire and ideas well beyond my means to purchase (and which I probably would not have thought to purchase in any case).

    Of course libraries cost money to run, but in specialist disciplines (where the cost of scholaraly editions, copyright music, and the sheer volume of material one needs to have available is prohibitive to all but the extremely wealthy), they are indispensible. A website with a few digitised scores is a poor substitute for a building where you can go and read from a large selection of books in peace and quiet, and not be at the mercy of the laptop battery, the internet connection, or the considerable restrictions of most commercial e-book platforms.

  7. How much must they raise?

  8. They must get the word out to people like Bruce Kovner, the Chairman of the Board at Juilliard. He is a hugely wealthy hedge fund manager who always seems to do well while the rest of us are barely surviving. A few
    hundred K would be hamburger money for him. Also, try Michael Dell. His money manager, John Phelan and his wife Amy are strong supporters of the Arts (Whitney, Tate and Guggenheim). Also, try the Buxbaums who are big supporters of the Aspen Music Festival. And also, Leon Black of Apollo Investors, who sits on the Board of the Metropolitan Art Museum. Even though these are tough businessmen, they are people would recognize the value of preserving this library. Give it a try.

  9. Marcel Zijlstra says:

    The plans to wind up one of the world’s largest sheet music libraries are outrageous. The dismantling of the MCO does not imply, however, the abolition of a chorus. The Groot Omroepkoor will survive in diminished strength, for a few more years, at least (In fact, we can be quite sure that in four years the next cuts will cause the abolition of the remaining parts of the MCO).
    Instead, two orchestras will be disbanded, the Radio Kamer Filharmonie and the Metropole Orchestra. The MO is unique in the world (see:

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