Tag Archives: Plate numbers

Hide and seek

[Or, if you prefer, Haydn seek. I absolve myself of all responsibility for this pun.]

The fun of cataloguing rare books is in the detective work. It’s like hide and seek at times, following tracks to work out where a particular item belongs. You chase up a reference here, another there, encountering any number of dark alleys and dead ends along the way, eliminating the possibilities one by one, until eventually whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

I’ve been cataloguing rare music recently, most of it from the 1780s. The usual suspects: Davaux and Dalayrac, Tarchi and Tozzi, Sulzer, Schroeter and Schetky. Names that have the ring of familiarity even now. Occasionally, something out of the ordinary comes up, like a 1786 edition of Mozart piano sonatas printed in London by John Bland. Or this:

Title page 1

Most title pages have a publisher’s imprint, giving the cataloguer useful details of the place of publication, the name of the publisher, and even (in cases of great good fortune) the publication date. These are all standard on modern books, but in the 1780s they weren’t, especially on printed music.

Where to look, then, if your edition of Haydn’s Overture for the Piano Forte has no publication information? Well, in the first instance, major reference sources like the British Union-Catalogue of Early Music (BUCEM) and Répertoire international des sources musicales (RISM). In this case, though, the increasingly mysterious overture was listed in neither.

Haydn, happily, is a composer important enough to have his own thematic catalogue, which was compiled by Anthony van Hoboken and published in 1957. Hoboken arranges Haydn’s works by form (symphony, string quartet, piano sonata), and then chronologically by publication within sections. My heart sank at the prospect of having to wade through all of Haydn’s orchestral music to identify the overture in question. My first thought was that a piece of piano music calling itself an overture might just as easily be an arrangement of a symphony movement, and Haydn wrote a hell of a lot of symphonies.

Incipit 1

The task was to match the incipit (in plain English, the opening) of the score to one in Hoboken’s catalogue. After at least two minutes of tireless browsing, lo and behold, there it was in the Overtures section! Hob. Ia:7, Overture in D major. I hadn’t expected it to be so straightforward. Hoboken lists early editions of the piece, and includes the one I was cataloguing. But in the place where you would normally find the name of the publisher, one word: ‘Anonym’. Sigh.

When the reference works let you down, it doesn’t have to be the end of the trail. You still have your own wits to rely on, and (more pertinently) the item itself. In this case, a major clue was provided by the plate number. Sets of music printed from engraved plates often have a number at the foot of each page, identical across all plates in a set, and here the style of the plate number (a number 13 in parentheses), combined with its proximity to a similar Plate number 1plate number (the item bound after it having a number 14 in the same style), led me to infer with some confidence that the unidentified publishers of this edition were Edinburgh’s Corri & Sutherland.

This in turn facilitated the task of assigning a publication date. Humphries & Smith’s Music Publishing in the British Isles, an invaluable ‘dictionary of engravers, printers, publishers and music sellers’, says Corri & Sutherland operated from 1780 until 1790, which fits neatly with Hoboken’s stated composition date of 1777.

So there you have it: the cataloguing of an early edition from cradle to grave. There’s more to it than that, of course, but one has to keep something exciting in reserve for future posts.