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Research Grant Brings Cello Researcher to UNCG

Even as a beginning cellist many years ago, the question arose in Zoltan Szabo’s mind – why are there so many editions of the six Johann Sebastian Bach suites for solo cello?  As his skill and knowledge grew, the question remained an open one for him. There are no manuscripts of these important works in the composer’s own hand, but there four 18th century manuscript copies.  These four different manuscripts have spawned more than 100 published editions, not including reprints.  As time has passed, cellists have chosen different editions for many reasons, not always the best ones.  Some may have been chosen because they were inexpensive, some because they had a nice cover, or for other reasons, but there is no single definitive edition, nor is there likely to be one.  That is not even Szabo’s goal, for there is no original to consult, but he finds and studies all of the various editions of the master’s work, and tries to record the differences and changes that have been made over the years.  He likens the search to playing Sherlock Holmes, and he clearly enjoys the chase.  The results?  He believes that many of the notes cellists play are probably not the ones intended by Bach, but he wants to get as close as he can to Bach’s conception of the original composition as he can.  As we talked, it occurred to us both that Szabo’s quest was for him like searching for the Holy Grail, or the original sources of the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament.

Szabo’s search has taken him around the world, including a visit to UNCG  in December where he received a research grant from the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives to support his travel here.  Originally from Hungary and trained in the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest (where cellists Janos Scholz and Laszlo Varga also studied, and whose collections are here to be studied at UNCG), Szabo relocated to Australia in 1985, and performed as principal cello at the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra from 1992-2011. 

Szabo is both a cellist and a scholar, and it is the scholarly pursuit that brought him here. Last year, he visited 2 major collections of cello music in Europe, and is headed to Berea College in Ohio to visit the Riemenschneider Collection there in January of 2014.  He estimates that he will conclude his research in about two years, though he will probably continue to search for elusive editions of the “Six Suites” produced by Eastern European publishers which are scarce and have been out of print for many years.  Though he may never achieve it, his goal is to have copies of every edition in his possession when he is finished.

His research, he says, informs his work as a cellist, though he is quick to note that playing the cello involves his imagination and creativity, while his scholarly work depends so much on careful documentation of what he discovers.  For this kind of research, he says, it is important to see the physical documents.  One day, he hopes, all of the material will be digitized in high quality and available online, but he recognizes that doing so will require many years of careful preparation and handling, as well as funding. 

Szabo is very complimentary of the assistance he has received at UNCG, and says he is amazed at our facilities and especially how helpful and friendly the people are, going out of their way to be helpful.    The relationship with UNCG began when his research kept turning up references to cello music materials he needed to see that were found at UNCG, convincing him that he needed to contact a librarian at our repository, leading to extended correspondence and assistance by email.  It was Stacey Krim of the Special Collections and University Archives Department who made him aware of the research grant and encouraged him to apply for it. Librarians and archivists in the Special Collections and University Archives, in turn, talk about how much they are enjoying Szabo’s visit, especially when he picks up a cello borrowed from Music Librarian Sarah Dorsey and begins to play notes from Bach’s six suites that may never have been performed before.

Research grant information is listed on the SCUA homepage. The Special Collections and University Archives research grant is open to one researcher per year.  Applications may be found at  and are due by April 14, 2014.   Winners will need to make use of the grant between June 15, 2014 and March 30, 2015