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Vol 56 No. 17 | Dec. 2004
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Shun-Lin Chou
Professor Studies Scores
of Musical Clues

Shun-Lin Chou is more than an accomplished artist and educator; he is a musical detective.

The 1996 graduate of the Eastman School of Music and member of the Department of Music since 2003 follows a series of clues straight out of the hit TV series “CSI” to date first editions of collected scores by such composers as Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven.

It's all part of a scholarly specialty called “descriptive bibliography,” a tool librarians, musicologists, and collectors can use so they know exactly what they have.

“Most citations are very basic, listing the author and title,” said Chou, an associate professor in Music. “A bibliography might include a publication date. But there are things more important than that, including a physical description of the score itself.”

Chou has become a collector of old scores and points with pride to texts dating from 1800 sealed in acid-free folders.

Music Books“There are clues to the age and identity of printed music,” he said. “The publisher is one. Handwriting is a big clue. Some old scores bear inscriptions from the owner. Even more treasured are proof copies that the composer gave to the publisher. The binding can be described. Some of the copies have been bound specially by their original owners as gifts. These collections don't have to represent a particular anthology. Some are simply the bound editions of whatever was lying around. In the 19th century, binding and presenting printed music was seen as a nice thing to do.”

He first became interested in first edition scores while attending the Eastman School of Music, where he earned his doctorate in part with his work on descriptive bibliography. “The Eastman has one of the largest collections of such things,” said Chou. “I wanted to perform an unusual repertoire and I found myself searching through the rare book archive. Eventually, I began to wonder if I could own some of these old scores. The answer was, yes. There were things out there to be had.”  

Chou fans out three white sheaves of music on a black grand piano. Each is a printed copy of Chopin's Deux Polonaises and each might be a first edition. But which is it?

Music“This is where descriptive bibliography comes in,” says Chou. “At first, it can appear that each copy's graphics are identical, even the plate number. But there can be differences in the text and paper. Two of these copies portray this G sharp with the note head beamed to a different staff. Plates may crack and need replacement after as few as 500 copies and the examples are obvious, with a crack running through several notes. Details like that make for distinctly different states, issues, or editions.”

But the final conclusion is simpler than it seems. “It's the price,” said Chou. “It usually goes up and almost never goes down. And the first copy had the lowest price in an older German currency.”

Chou dated a copy of Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” by social history. “This piece is clearly marked for harpsichord or piano, so it must have been published when the harpsichord was still popular in the homes, even though its long, sustained melody doesn't work at all on the harpsichord. This copy was printed 20 years after Beethoven composed it. It is an important distinction and underlines why the social aspect of music publishing is fascinating. It reflects the taste of the times.”   

Playing the PianoChou came to the United States from Taiwan when he was 9, several years after he began studying piano.

“The only music teacher in my hometown of 100,000 taught piano. If he taught cello, I'd be a different man today,” he said with a laugh. His original ambition was to be a physician but he switched to music with only two years of study to go. “Instead of getting the MD, I got the DM,” he said. Chou earned his B.A. from Wheaton College in Illinois, an M.M. in Piano Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Michigan and his doctorate from the Eastman School, where he also earned a Performer's Certificate for piano. He came to CSULB after seven years of teaching at Southwest Missouri State University.        

Chou is pleased to be one of the music lovers who have preserved these texts. “It feels wonderful to be part of the chain,” he said. “Collecting these scores occupies a place close to my heart. And after all, it makes more sense for a musician to collect scores than stamps.”    

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