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Mentoring for Music: The Story of Three Librarians, and How They Worked to Further Develop the World’s Largest Cello Music Collection

(L-R) Mac Nelson, John Baga
Paul Hessling (photo by Carolyn Shankle)
Paul Hessling has been a cataloger at UNCG for 25 years. John Baga is beginning his career as a cataloger at Mississippi State after getting his M.L.I.S. degree from UNCG in 2011. They are linked by a passion for UNCG’s cello music collection, and their relationship with Mac Nelson, UNCG’s cello music cataloger.  Here is their story.

UNCG’s cello music collection is believed to be the world’s largest.  It has been built over nearly half a century, beginning with the acquisition of the Luigi Silva Collection by the Friends of the Library in 1964. Seven other collections have been acquired and processed in the intervening years, and the web site at  draws more than 6000 web page views per year from  students and scholars from throughout the world each year, as well as hundreds of visitors in person.  The collection is the result of collaboration and dedicated effort by a number of individuals in the School of Music and the University Libraries, and there are many people who deserve credit for creating this treasure for scholars, musicians, and students.

This story is about three of those people, and the relationship that continues to take the cello music collections at UNCG into new areas.  None of them work exclusively in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, where the cello music collection resides, but each works closely with the Department in developing the collections and making them more useful and more accessible.
Paul Hessling has been special collections cataloger at UNCG since 1986.  He is also a collector and the donor of numerous materials now in the Special Collections and University Archives at UNCG.  During his career, he has also mentored other librarians, among them Cello Music Cataloger Mac Nelson, who describes Hessling’s knowledge of special collections cataloging as “encyclopedic.”  Together, Paul and his wife Janice, a Greensboro physician, have also been generous donors to the University Libraries.  When Nelson, who is himself a talented guitarist, shared with them his dream to record and document the lives and careers of two cellists whose collections were given to UNCG, the Hesslings were enthusiastic about the idea.  In the course of their work together in the Cataloging Department, Paul Hessling encouraged Nelson and agreed that one of the most important things he could do with the cello music collection would be not just to catalog it and make it available to students and scholars, but also to pursue working with the two virtuoso cellists, Bernard Greenhouse and Laszlo Varga. 

Nelson acted upon his colleague’s advice.  He raised money and arranged for a recorded video interview with Beaux Arts Trio founder Bernard Greenhouse at his home on Cape Cod. Most scholarship about Greenhouse’s legacy had focused on his solo career and work with the Beaux Arts Trio.  There was also much interest in his ownership and playing of the "Paganini" Stradivarius cello dated 1707, but Greenhouse was also a great teacher and mentor.   In a short film produced by award-winning filmmaker Joanna Hay. the 93-year old Greenhouse may be seen teaching and mentoring an eleven year old Korean cellist, Ha Young Choi, the youngest student whom Greenhouse ever taught, and one whom he believed has great promise.  As he does so, Greenhouse reflects on the training he received from Pablo Casals as a young man.  In his later years, Greenhouse focused his efforts on creating a place where cellists could come and work with him before beginning their professional careers.  While Greenhouse died in 2011 at the age of ninety-five, this extraordinary footage of him teaching and reflecting on his long career still serves as a memorial to his greatness as a teacher and mentor, supplementing his library of annotated scores, papers and other materials which were given to UNCG.

Another of Nelson’s dreams was to record the life story of Laszlo Varga, who survived the horror of a Nazi labor camp in Hungary as a young man, escaping to become one of the world’s great cellists.  He was principal cellist at the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein and Dimitri Mitropoulos, among other achievements.  In the 1950s, he formed the first cello quartet in the U.S., which helped spawn a worldwide movement of cello ensembles. To date, he has completed over 50 transcriptions for solo cello, cello and piano, cello ensemble and mixed ensemble with cello.  Varga gave his collection to UNCG in 2006.

In 2005, Varga came to UNCG to participate in a celebration of Greenhouse, and came again in 2006, when UNCG celebrated his own work. Both celebrations were organized by Music professor Brooks Whitehouse, who was then at UNCG and is now at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  Nelson first met Varga at that 2005 celebration when he was assigned to escort him throughout the weekend.  As he had done with Greenhouse, Nelson became not just a cataloger of the cellist’s works, but his friend as well.   Encouraged by Hessling and supported by Dean Rosann Bazirjian and Cataloging Department Head Mary Jane Conger, Nelson began work on documenting the full range of Varga’s life and career. 

Here also is where John Baga enters the story.  The Winston-Salem native, while pursuing a graduate degree in library and information science at UNCG, was approached by Nelson and Professor Jim Carmichael of the Library and Information Studies program at UNCG about doing some projects relating to the cello music collections.  Also a pianist with a special interest in drawing attention to music that he considers  under-exposed, Baga eventually took an internship under Nelson’s direction, and, suffering perhaps from the contagious enthusiasm that characterized the entire project,  became fascinated with the collection and career of Varga.  Baga undertook a project to organize and further develop some notes Varga had prepared about his life and career. According to Nelson, Baga undertook the project with “palpable enthusiasm and single-minded concentration. “  After producing a forty page manuscript that he enhanced with parenthetical notes and indexing, Baga was hooked.  When he came into an unexpected inheritance from his father, Baga generously came to Nelson and offered financial support to do another video interview, this time with Varga.  Baga continues to believe Varga  is a cellist who is seriously under-represented in the scholarly literature, and is doing something about it.  Recently, he gave additional gifts to encourage published research about Laszlo Varga and support the development of the Libraries’ collection about  him with such projects as oral history interviews with his students.  The Hesslings also made two significant financial contributions to the project, which had stalled when ill health kept Varga from visiting Greensboro.  As a result, Nelson and the videographer went to visit him instead, at his home in Florida. The result was eight hours of video footage with a reinvigorated Varga that Nelson hopes eventually to distill into another film tribute to a great cellist.  As Paul Hessling notes, “the idea was too important to let a lack of money keep it from happening.  It was a project that had to be done.”

The relationship of Nelson and Baga is a close one.  The two plan to collaborate on presentations and articles about their projects, and Nelson notes with pride that Baga has recently been named monographic cataloger at Mississippi State University, his first professional position.

Students and scholars of music have long recognized the value of mentoring and teaching to the careers of newer cellists.  The “genealogy” of one’s training is one of the marks by which a cellist develops and becomes associated throughout a lifetime of music.  How appropriate that so too has the relationship of Hessling, Nelson and Baga come to define and give testimony to the value of mentoring for careers in librarianship that have deepened and enriched the cello music collections at UNCG.