November 5, 2013

A burrow full of books

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A burrow full of books

Thus ends my year-long sojourn in the United Kingdom, where I’ve learnt to cook, met wonderful people I never hope to lose contact with, and had the time of my life, all while reading musicology and analysing 46 different recordings of the same piece (!!!) for a dissertation. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve amassed a large boxful of books, music scores, vinyl records and CDs in the process.

Books are amazing things, filled with facts, thoughts and opinions of the authors at the time they were written. In every city I visit, I make it a point to find second-hand bookshops to browse through, and I often leave with interesting old things, sometimes out-of-print, bought at a bargain. You never know what you’ll find in these bookshops, and most discoveries are often pleasantly surprising. I was in London last October for a Beethoven conference, and stayed with a friend who owned an apartment there. Following her advice that the best old bookshops could be found near Trafalgar Square, I poked around the area and found a few vinyls (bought one of Pollini playing late Schubert), some scores of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux by Breitkopf edited by Max Pauer (the previous owner dated the book from 1932), Chopin Preludes (Novello edition), and the first edition of the translation of Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of Bach from 1920!

When in Liverpool in August, I picked up a copy of Padarewski’s biography, a book of music in the Romantic Era by Alfred Einstein, and an old leather-bound edition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Along the course of the year, I also acquired various piano duets, solo piano music, transcriptions, and different editions of various Liszt and Schubert works.

My favourite shop so far is AlbaMusick, tucked in a lane on 55 Otago Street in Glasgow. A black sign on the street which reads ‘Alba Musick’ and ‘Thistle Books’ points into a lane which leads into a small carpark. Upon walking into the lane, one sees a light emanating from the windows of a closed green door, which opens into the labyrinth of books. One thing that distinguishes this shop from the others is the wide selection of books on music and sheet music for virtually any instrument/combination of instruments (I bet I could find an etude book for kazoos if I tried!)

Entering the shop, it was as if one stepped back into time. Bookshelves crammed full with books fill the entire shop from floor to ceiling. In the middle there exists a table on which boxes of music scores are piled, underneath the table are even more scores, and above that are shelves of 19th and 20th century books, mostly out-of-print books, biographies, or auto-biographies. Perhaps the only thing which looked out of place was the sleek, silver MacBook Pro with its illuminated bitten-into apple resting on the tabletop. Proprietor Robert Lay sat behind the screen working from the laptop, occasionally glancing up to greet customers who walked in.

Robert is a retired cellist from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and owns two other music shops, one in Edinburgh and the other in a small Scottish book town. He has also set up and is actively involved in an early music ensemble. Robert gets his books from all over the UK, personally travelling around to source for them. Owned by an intelligent, widely-read and experienced musician for musicians, it is no wonder why this is my favourite shop of the lot.

The first time I visited his shop was sometime in August, when I was in Glasgow to watch a friend’s graduation recital. After spending a good part of the afternoon chatting with him (on Rostropovich, cello-playing, piano music, transcriptions, Beethoven and a whole lot of other things), I left his shop with a few scores, a copy of Hugo Ulrich’s transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies for one piano four hands, a Charles Rosen book, a memoir of a late 19th century accompanist Andre Benoist, and promised him that I’d be back in a few weeks’ time, asking him to keep a lookout for certain books and alert me if he saw them. Upon returning to Glasgow in early September, I was surprised to find that Robert actually put aside a pile of rare books on the table for me!  In that pile was a 2-volume Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music from 1929, a comprehensive study of anything and everything to do with chamber music until the 1920s, and a book on Elgar and the recording process of the early 20th century. Another rare find was  a first edition of Rabel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, with an inscription in the book by a lighthouse keeper to her nephew. Her nephew, presumably the owner of the book, was an accomplished pianist, and the book was filled with fingering suggestions and little scribbled notes. Somewhere in the middle, as though he thought Ravel’s writing was not difficult enough, he added harmonies and a countermelody written on manuscript paper and stuck it over the passage!

The best place to be is pretty much anywhere, as long as I’m surrounded by books and music scores! 

Time seems to fly whenever I’m there browsing, not knowing what curious things I would find.
I regret not getting more time to spend in his shop the second visit as my in-laws were patiently waiting, but I do hope to go back for a visit the next time I’m in the UK. If you do visit his shop, do say hi to him for me 🙂

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