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Remembering the Schwann Catalog

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There’s a lot of information online about the history of the monthly Schwann Catalog, which started out as a listing of classical  records. We now refer to “vinyl” when we’re talking about LPs, but shellac was the medium in 1949 at the catalog’s debut. “By April 1973, the catalog numbered a robust (one might even say obese) 256 pages, listing a staggering 45,000 currently available disks by 814 labels, plus 8‐track tape cartridges and cassettes made by nearly 300 companies.”

He had sold it but continued to edit it until 1985. It operated into the late 90’s when the internet and record companies’ own websites rendered it obsolete.

William Joseph Schwann owned The Record Shop in Cambridge MA 1939-53; but in the 1950s I bought records so often from the nearby Briggs & Briggs in Harvard Square that they sometimes would give me a free expired copy of the catalog. Schwann was the first American publication I ever saw that gave abbreviated key designations with single letters, upper case for major, lower for minor (Grieg, “Piano Concerto in a,” Beethoven, “Piano Concerto no. 4 in G”), a practice I like, but the BMInt house style insists on redundancy: “Piano Concerto in A Minor” and “G Major”). The catalog itself had a funky air. I can remember one issue, around 1972, I think, that had a pastel portrait of Milton Babbitt on the cover. It amused us was to read all the listings for Vivaldi concertos during the years of Vivaldi mania: “Concerto for violin and orchestra” (two pages), “Concerto for two violins and orchestra” (one page), “Concerto for three violins and orchestra,” “Concerto for four violins and orchestra,” “Concerto for two violins, cello and orchestra,” “Concerto for violin, two cellos and orchestra” (half a column each), and, climactically, “Concerto for violin and two orchestras.”

On one occasion Schwann decided to run an opinion contest: “Which composer do you dislike the most?” As I recall, about 1,500 people answered the question, and the results were published a month or so later. I don’t remember the exact figures, but Schoenberg was way out in front of the pack, something like 35% of all answers. Bruckner was I think in second place, and Wagner probably within the top ten. About 40 disliked composers were listed — Mozart and Beethoven within the top 20 or so — and all the usual 20th-century suspects, Bartók, Stravinsky, even Gershwin. But what I remember most vividly was that Schubert’s name never appeared in the list. I never forgot that, and remembering what Bertrand Russell had said about Spinoza, “the most lovable of the great philosophers,” I wrote in my anthology, Mostly Short Pieces (Norton, 1992), that Schubert was “perhaps the most lovable of the great composers.” I still think that, much of the time.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. During college 1968-72, Cutler’s in New Haven sold it; several friends always bought copies; it fueled discussion about conductors; the Artist issue was a must; Mein lieber Schwann.

    Comment by William Keller — May 16, 2024 at 2:29 pm

  2. Fifty years ago, among my first interview features:

    https://archive.org/details/sim_boston-phoenix_1973-04-24_2_17/page/n57/mode/1up

    the jump:

    https://archive.org/details/sim_boston-phoenix_1973-04-24_2_17/page/n59/mode/1u

    Comment by David Moran — May 17, 2024 at 1:20 pm

  3. Dittersdorf—by a country mile. PDQ Bach w/o brains & genius. Another bit of Lost Wasted Youth–the Schwann 😺. Heard of it a lot but rarely consulted–I went through the racks instead. But we are now ready for the tragedy of Lea Pocket Scores.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 19, 2024 at 7:56 am

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