Balázs Mikusi, National Széchényi Library, Budapest*

Per astra ad aspera: RISM in Hungary

As most of you will know, RISM was established in 1952 at the first meeting of its Commission Mixte set up by the International Musicological Society and the International Association of Music Libraries. Notwithstanding the by then solidly established Communist regime that was hardly open to initiatives coming from the West, Hungary joined the project in but a few years. Indeed, the first letter, written in October 1955, that informed the then Minister of Culture about the project strongly emphasized that Czechoslovakia and Poland had already started their RISM work a year earlier, which obviously proved that Hungary’s possible participation would by no means be seen as politically dubious by the Russian authorities. While the National Széchényi Library was considered the appropriate place for undertaking such research, after the very first steps the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also brought in: the three-member committee that worked out the details of the first RISM project in Hungary included two scholars from the National Library – Jenő Vécsey and Zoltán Falvy – and one member from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, none other than Bence Szabolcsi, one of the founding fathers of Hungarian musicology. Notwithstanding Szabolcsi’s no doubt leading role, the center of RISM Hungary was at this early stage in the National Széchényi Library, but this first phase of RISM in Hungary did not last very long: the work had hardly started when the 1956 revolution made such bibliographical research seem rather unimportant.

Indeed, no matter how hard I was searching, I was unable to find any documents related to RISM work in the National Széchényi Library from the late 1950s. Only with the establishment of RISM’s new center in Kassel in 1960 was a new wave of activity initiated in Hungary as well. In August 1960 the Hungarian RISM Committee hired two volunteers to do on-site research in several Transdanubian centers including Pannonhalma, Pécs, Szombathely, Vác, Debrecen and Sárospatak. But the true restart of the project only arrived with the 1961 establishment of the Bartók Archives, which – somewhat in contrast to its specifically Bartókian name – soon became the center of Hungarian musicological research in general, and is today known as the Institute for Musicology. Zoltán Falvy, who was himself working for RISM in the National Széchényi Library earlier on, became research secretary in the Bartók Archives at the very start, and was quick to commission Veronika Vavrinecz to do part-time research for RISM in several cultural centers all around the country. With Vavrinecz’s arrival, the earlier, occasional work of enthusiastic but at best “semi-amateur” contributors suddenly became a well-organized research project. Rather than sending individual researchers everywhere, Vavrinecz built up a team including another well-educated musicologist, Margit Tóth, and an assistant who spared the true researchers much of the “slave work” by copying the incipits.

Accordingly, the report issued by the Kassel RISM center in July 1962 already mentioned Hungary among those countries – besides Switzerland, France and the United States – that have now begun to provide RISM data on a regular basis. This regularity did not simply allow for completion of the cataloging of printed sources for RISM A/I by the end of that year, but also made it possible to revise many of the descriptions of earlier, non-professional researchers: it was in particular missing plate numbers as well as Köchel (and other work list) numbers that had to be supplied retrospectively. While these achievements certainly proved useful for RISM as such, it should be stressed that Hungarian musicology in general benefited immensely from the work as well: the sources for the music history of the country had never earlier been collected so systematically, and so the results actually serve as starting point for most Hungarian researchers even today. In accordance with this, the Hungarian RISM catalog cards were at this stage prepared in three copies: one for submission to the Kassel center, another to remain in the National Széchényi Library, and a third one for the Bartók Archives to form the basis of their research collection of 17th and 18th-century repertory. If the first wave of RISM work (in the mid-1950s) could provide at best a sketchy overview about the sources outside of Budapest, the more scrupulous work done in this second phase, between 1961 and 1967, was already able to draw a fairly detailed picture of most other collections in the country: the reports written by Vavrinecz and her colleagues give exact details about which museums, archives and churches they visited, whom they consulted there, and even include the ideas of their informants about where else they should try to look for old musical sources.

This first heyday of RISM Hungary, however, lasted only a few years: at the end of 1966 the Hungarian Academy of Sciences stopped funding the project, and suggested that the work be taken over fully by the music collection of the National Széchényi Library. Even though the music collection indeed seemed open to such a solution, the work inevitably slowed down: from this point on Vavrinecz could only dedicate her one day per week research time to RISM, and so study trips of meaningful length to the countryside became more and more difficult to organize.

The year 1969 brought some serious changes for RISM on an international level: both Friedrich Riedel and Ernst Hilmar left the Kassel center, while Friedrich Blume announced the approaching closure of the work for the series A/I (i.e. the printed music before 1800), and started to make enquiries about the possibilities of turning to the manuscripts in each national RISM group. I have not been able to locate Hungary’s official response to Blume’s query, but it could hardly have been totally positive. While Vavrinecz herself started work on manuscript sources as well, the little research time she was permitted obviously proved insufficient to move forward with the necessary speed. The late 1960s and early ’70s therefore again seems to be a period of relative passivity in the story of RISM in Hungary – this low ebb, nonetheless, was followed by a true heyday that lasted for two decades. István Kecskeméti, then Head of Music in the National Széchényi Library, realized that RISM was making little progress in these years, and managed to convince the Ministry of Culture to establish a full-time position specifically for RISM in 1973. Since no professional musicologist seemed available, Kecskeméti decided to hire Róbert Murányi, who received his education at the Liszt Music Academy in the 1940s as choral conductor and organist, but was now teaching in a music school in Budapest. Murányi started work in the National Széchényi Library as a part-time research assistant in the fall of 1973; half a year later he was given a full position with the exclusive task of preparing descriptions for RISM. Thanks to this, the two decades between 1974 and 1994, Murányi’s final retirement, are doubtless the zenith of RISM Hungary: while the ’50s saw virtually random research in a few bigger towns, and work in the ’60s was still mostly restricted to research trips during the weekends, now it was a truly dedicated researcher spending forty hours a week (if not more) on the project. It must be noted, nevertheless, that the official foundations of RISM were dubious even in this apparently ideal period: whereas Kecskeméti insisted that the new position was created and funded specifically to enhance work for RISM, the Director General of the National Széchényi Library would have expected Murányi to do other work as well – the compromise became that Murányi was actually doing very little work directly related to the National Széchényi Library, but the Music Department was careful to remain silent on this matter in its annual reports.

Another important fact to note is that Murányi’s arrival did not imply the establishment of a “Hungarian working group” for RISM in the strict sense: while Kecskeméti insisted on dealing with the correspondence himself, the actual RISM work appears to have been the single-person achievement of Murányi. That said, the results of the first period were impressive: as early as September 1974 general permission from the National Center of Catholic Collections was obtained to pursue research in diverse collections administered by the church, and in December of the same year a carefully written circular was sent to all traceable state archives, museums and libraries whose directors gave Murányi valuable information about any old musical sources kept in their collections. The prime goal of this large-scale research campaign was of course to finalize the list of printed sources, and Kecskeméti was able to send Karlheinz Schlager, the new head of RISM in Kassel, Hungary’s last catalog cards for RISM A/I already in July 1975. After the relatively fast completion of the printed material, however, the large-scale exploratory work proved equally useful in planning the next step, the cataloging of manuscripts, which Murányi started as early as August 1975 (already keeping in mind the new directives laid down two months earlier by the Commission Mixte in Paris).

It should be stressed once again that, in this period as well, the importance of the Hungarian RISM project extended beyond RISM itself: besides providing the Kassel center with ample information, the research done in Hungary became one of the foundations of music historical research inside the country, and Murányi was even making research trips abroad in an effort to identify further Hungarica items. Since the latter work proved tiresome and hardly very productive, Hungary initiated an exchange of RISM catalog cards between Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (even if this proved only moderately successful in the long run). Reflecting the increased productivity of RISM Hungary, in the fall of 1976 Kecskeméti was elected a member of RISM’s Advisory Research Committee, although the correspondence of the following years suggests that his relationships with the Kassel center were never warm: to mention but two examples, Kecskeméti plainly refused to indicate the line breaks with / signs in the description of manuscripts (claiming this was wholly superfluous), and he also had reservations about the prescribed format of RISM cards, which did not fit in the usual catalog boxes, and decided to prepare standard-format (7.5 x 12 centimeters) cards for the use of the National Széchényi Library instead (and even suggested the Kassel center that they should modify their method in this regard, since it was after all the libraries whose interest should have been decisive). Such minor tensions notwithstanding, the work went on with admirable speed: the collections of the Cathedral in Veszprém and the Helikon Museum in Keszthely were soon included in their entirety, and taken to Budapest to prepare the microfilm copies (which became standard procedure at this stage). The work then continued with smaller collections in Szombathely, Budapest and – already in the early 1980s – at the Cathedral at Pécs. A decisive problem, however, remained that, while Murányi’s position in the National Széchényi Library was safe, the financial background for his extended research trips were increasingly difficult to ensure. The solution was found in 1980, when Kecskeméti withdrew his earlier regulation that sources should be brought to Budapest only for the preparation of microfilms after the completion of the cataloging process, and instead suggested that whole collections could be “borrowed” by the National Library for the entire time of cataloging and description.

The freedom this method gave Murányi was further increased in 1981 by Kecskeméti’s retirement, for his successor became none other than Murányi, who now had all the means to ensure the ideal circumstances for his own RISM work. However, in but a few years it became clear that the price he had to pay was too big: Murányi became more and more frustrated by administrative matters taking his time away from his beloved RISM work, and decided to resign early in 1984 – as he happily mentioned, he now could not understand how this wonderfully simple idea (i.e. to resign) had not occurred to him even earlier. Since Murányi was succeeded by Veronika Vavrinecz, who was of course fully aware of the nature and importance of RISM, Murányi could continue his RISM work undisturbed for another decade. It was also this period that seemed the most unproblematic regarding personal relations: Joachim Schlichte developed very friendly connections with Murányi, ensuring him in several of his letters that “I would be happy if all the catalog entries were as good as yours from Hungary!” (1981), and that “as for your descriptions from Hungary, these truly belong among the best I know, with all the extremely precise, necessary information regarding each manuscript.” Inspired by this friendly encouragement, Murányi continued his work: in 1987–88 the music collection of the Abbey at Pannonhalma was taken to the National Library and catalogued for RISM, then came the vast collection of the Cathedral at Esztergom, which was brought to the National Library in July 1989. At this stage, however, Murányi apparently began to realize that, having reached the age of 65, his hopes of himself completing all RISM work in Hungary were unfounded, and so he started to look for alternative shortcuts, so to speak. In the summer of 1991, for example, he asked Christine Martin in the Frankfurt RISM center whether she would have found it feasible to use the work lists at the end of Kornél Bárdos’s so-called “town monographs” as basis for RISM descriptions. The Frankfurt center asked for samples of these work lists, and agreed that, lacking the capacity to re-catalog all of these items according to recent RISM standards, the conversion of these descriptions could be a useful addition to RISM. By the same token, in early 1992 Murányi raised the idea that his own catalog of the so-called Bártfa collection, published in German the previous year, could also be used for creating additional RISM records. If one searches the online RISM catalog today one finds no trace that either of Murányi’s suggestions was realized – which seems all the more painful, because Murányi’s own work evidently lost momentum by this time. Whereas the collection of the Esztergom Cathedral should originally have been returned less than a year after its arrival in 1989, the cataloging work was barely started by 1994, when Murányi reached the official age limit and was asked to retire. And his retirement brought the end not merely of the heyday of RISM in Hungary, but indeed the end of RISM work in the country altogether. For in this period cutting down on staff in all state-funded institutions, including the National Széchényi Library, was already everyday practice, and Murányi’s position – precisely because of his consistent policy to essentially ignore the own holdings of the national library – did by no means seem to affect the everyday duties of the music collection, and was accordingly left empty. Even though a young colleague was still hired a year later in part as Murányi’s successor, he decided to leave after another year. Since then, regrettably, nothing at all has happened in Hungary for RISM. (It is also noteworthy, and certainly not wholly coincidental, that less than a year after the demise of RISM Hungary the Hungarian RILM Office also ceased to exist due to similar financial considerations. Since providing the New York RILM center with data from Hungary obviously did not belong among the basic tasks of any single library, and the Ministry of Culture abolished direct support of this activity, the work got into a vacuum and has since been pursued through private channels, thanks exclusively to the enthusiasm of a colleague of Hungarian descent in the New York RILM Center.)

To be sincere, when making the decision to attend this conference and speak about the history of RISM in Hungary I was hoping that, by now, I would already be able to show a glimmer of hope. For the general elections in Hungary two months ago obviously promised an unprecedented breakthrough of the conservative FIDESZ party, which had traditionally been more invested in funding projects related to Hungary’s cultural history. However, the worldwide financial crisis has already crushed all such hopes of a quick turnaround in cultural politics: the new government structure is in fact so exclusively centered on issues of the economy that the Ministry of Culture as such has been eliminated, and become a mere state secretary inside a gigantic “Ministry of National Resources.” Therefore, I am afraid we cannot entertain hopes that Hungary could afford establishing a new RISM position in the near future; certainly not in the next three or four years. Instead, we should be exploring what one could achieve in the meantime with less personal and financial investment.

Firstly, as several of my colleagues in Hungarian musicology suggested, the most important thing is to have an item appear in RISM even if its description might not prove as detailed as one could imagine. If so, Murányi’s suggestion to convert entries from printed catalogs into RISM records would well be worth reconsideration. Most of the six volumes of “town monographs” I have mentioned earlier include work lists of the most important local collections by none other than Veronika Vavrinecz, who had earlier been working very successfully for RISM as well, and so her entries (even if they might not fully conform to recent RISM standards) are certainly trustworthy from a scholarly point of view. Admittedly, two of the cities in question – Pécs and Székesfehérvár – were researched more scrupulously by Murányi later on, but the material in Tata, Eger, Győr and Sopron – all of them important centers of musical life in the 17th and 18th centuries – could enrich the RISM database with a wealth of useful information.

Secondly, at a later stage the material from the National Széchényi Library should be entered into RISM in greater quantity than before. Murányi obviously believed that the prime mission of RISM was to make known as well as unknown, oftentimes uncataloged collections accessible to scholars, but his predilection for outside sources brought the embarrassing result that the manuscripts of the National Széchényi Library, which was the center of RISM after all for several decades, are in fact underrepresented among the Hungarian material. Unfortunately, at the moment very few of our manuscripts are cataloged in a form that could potentially be used for RISM (namely, there are no incipits attached), and even more unfortunately only a small fraction of the extant records are available through the online catalog (in so-called HUNMARC format). Nonetheless, the situation in this respect has become so embarrassing for the national library as well, that we have been promised to be the next special collection to have its card catalog converted into our online system, if any sort of outside funding appears on the horizon.

Thirdly, we should of course not give up all hopes that at some point having a special RISM contributor might again become possible. I should admit, however, that this could hardly be achieved by our music collection alone: it is more some sort of combined grant for us and the Institute for Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences that might seem realistic. For the cuts in staff that occurred in the National Széchényi Library in the past decade and a half were also adumbrating a change of paradigm as it were: while earlier on the national library was seen as a research institution as well, today it is primarily viewed as a “mere” library that should provide services to readers and researchers rather than running its own scholarly projects. Another central problem concerns our relationships with the Catholic Church. As I entered my position at the beginning of last year I was shocked to find out that the music collection of the cathedral in Esztergom, which had been brought by Murányi to the National Library in 1989, was still there – after this more than two-decade-long borrowing of the material I am doubtful if we could receive permission for another similar loan in the near future from any collection administered by the church. At the same time, with the new possibility of taking digital photographs, whole collections could now be handled easily and cataloged primarily on the basis of high-resolution shots. Since earlier RISM researchers in the 1960s and ’70s pretty well mapped out the collections we should be looking at, these collections could be photographed and cataloged one by one, without having to enter embarrassing discussions about the possibility to borrow them. Finally, there is another (at least in part) positive momentum: similar to many other countries, Hungary today has a definite oversupply of young musicologists without appropriate jobs for them – if we were able to provide these young scholars with but temporary employment, they should be happy to participate.

To sum up, RISM had its ups and downs in Hungary as well, and the past decade and a half certainly constitute the longest down in this process. Still, if we can make the appropriate compromises and bring the project back to life in Budapest in whatever form, the hope always remains that another up-phase might arrive. Rather than mourning for what we have lost, and wait patiently for the turn of the wind, I suggest that we do what can be done even under these difficult circumstances (like converting the printed catalogs), and in the meantime keep explaining to everybody how much better all of this could be done with the appropriate means at hand. Perhaps culture will at some point return among those issues taken seriously by politicians – if that happens, we should be ready to demonstrate what we have already achieved, and specify what sort of help the government should give us in the future.

[June 2010]


Series A/I; series B, volume VIII, parts 1 and 2; series C
Series B (except for volume VIII, parts 1 and 2)
Series A/II CD-ROM (1995-2008)
Series A/II subscription database (2002-2006)
Series A/II subscription database (2006-present)
Congress report (2010)