ARTS / Outside Edge: Tom Stein on the gentle art of the music curator

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The Independent Culture
I really came here to catalogue the historical and political papers,' Arthur Searle says of his arrival at the British Library, 'but after boring most of the people at the interview with my tremendous enthusiasm for music, this is where I ended up.' Not a bad interview technique, given that he 'ended up' as Curator of Music Manuscripts.

Searle spends a large proportion of his time answering and cataloguing enquires from the general public, but his main preoccupation is the development of the Library's collection. Not surprisingly, as the library has been acquiring manuscripts since 1753, it is already brimming over with some of the finest music ever composed.

This rabbit warren of narrow passages and secret doors houses, for example, nearly 100 volumes of Handel's autograph scores, a few of Haydn's London symphonies, the sketchbooks for Beethoven's Pastoral symphony and the recently bequeathed works of Andrzej Panufnik.

Unexpected and illuminating flashes of humanity appear among the books. Sir Adrian Boult's personal diaries, for instance, with their spiky revelations of the great maestro's detestation of Debussy.

The trickiest part of the job, he finds, is deciding what is suitable for the collection and what is not. 'In a sense, as a National Library, we should be collecting our own composers' manuscripts,' he says. 'What I would ideally like to have is as many comprehensive collections of as many outstanding English composers as we can.'

The difficulty, of course, is estimating the importance of contemporary composers. 'We're more or less certain of the dead ones,' says Searle, 'but who knows what people might think of this person or that in another 50 years or so.' He points at some strange multicoloured markings on a Peter Maxwell Davies score.

Fishing out a rare 18th-century music book from among a pile of dusty papers, he shows how what appears to be a student's theory book, with its mass of black- inked scrawls on one side, is in fact the autograph work of a little-known violinist and composer on the other. 'And most of these pieces,' Searle adds, 'have never even been heard before.' Finds like these are exciting: even more so are the occasions when manuscripts of great composers turn up unexpectedly.

Searle remembers when the Stefan Zweig collection of music and literature was left to the British Library in 1986. 'I didn't expect the owners to turn up and give us the whole lot] And when I looked more closely, I was astounded to see the original manuscripts of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No 2, Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Debussy's Fantasy for piano and orchestra - manuscripts I didn't even know existed.'