Photo of the original concerto manuscript. Courtesy Jessica Lewis.

After speaking with The Toronto Star and CBC, James Mason is getting tired of interviews.

Mason, a librarian at the University of Toronto’s Music Faculty Library, discovered a long-lost concerto written by the Norwegian conductor and composer Johan Halvorsen. The piece had originally been written for and performed by Canadian violin prodigy Kathleen Parlow in the early twentieth century before its mysterious disappearance.

Mason described to The Varsity that ‘lost’ isn’t the operative word. “The official story is that after it was premiered, Halvorsen wasn’t too happy with the critical results and reviews,” Mason explained. An enigmatic composer, Halvorsen had earned a reputation for being highly critical of his own work. “It hadn’t been published, so it wasn’t commercially available at this point. It was assumed that if he destroyed his version of it then it was gone. But he made a copy for Parlow. Low and behold there was a copy that was preserved and showed up 100 years later.” 

The violinist’s estate donated all of her works to the library. For years people had asked about the availability of Halvorsen’s concerto only to be turned down.

Mason and his colleagues Suzanna Meyers Sawa and Houman Behzadi managed to find the concerto while working on a project to digitize Parlow’s archival collection.

In the process of digitizing the library, he moved the records from one database to another, and then dumped all of the data out and recorded it into a spreadsheet.

“There were four records that had virtually no information. In the fields in which you’d expect things like title and author, there was nothing. There were some information fields that weren’t used for anything. In one of those fields in all four of them there was a caption with Parlow’s name. There was one that was clearly a manuscript score and we were like, ‘Whoa what’s up with this?’ We took it aside, we did a little bit of digging, and we came to think we had the only copy.”

The discovery speaks to the importance of digitizing libraries. The concerto will make its twenty-first century debut at the International Musicological Society’s annual conference in Norway on July 4. Mason is optimistic that the piece could also be performed within Canada in the near future.

“We also feel like we have ownership over this too,” says Mason. “I think it would be really nice if we had a premiere here. Personally I feel it would be great if the University of Toronto orchestrated it. The Toronto Symphony would also be great, or even a soloist from Calgary would be great.”

As for speaking to the media, Mason says, “I think I’ll be happy to get back to my job. Being a librarian isn’t always the most drama filled profession, so it’s been exciting to be able to talk about what I do.”

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