The delights of handwritten scores

I’m a real score enthusiast. I love their intricacy, diversity and the mysterious way in which they contain the coded thoughts of the person who wrote them. It’s wonderful, how they manage to combine elements of both drawing and writing, being both highly practical as well as visually appealing. This is all true for highly standardised mass-printed scores as well as their friendly handwritten relations. But, for me, it’s the handwritten ones that are the real gems as they have the added bonus of each serving as a kind of abstract self-portrait, capturing something elusive about their author. And fortunately for score enthusiasts such as myself, dotted throughout the Jerwood Library collection there are all kinds of examples of handwritten manuscripts, from early originals tucked away in special collections, to facsimiles of the scores and sketches of the European masters, to the wildly diverse offerings of the twentieth-century avant-garde.

European music notation has come a long way in the course of its development from the vagueness of mediaeval neumes to the relative precision of modern day practice. Yet despite the current level of standardisation, I never cease to find it extraordinary how individual in appearance hand-drawn scores can be. Often one can know the music of a particular composer well, but on seeing one of their manuscripts in their own hand for the first time there is this feeling of gaining some kind of extra insight. Yet, exactly what this consists in is very hard to say. Of course, one can gain all kinds of fascinating scholarly insights by going back to original sources, but what I’m talking about here has more to do with the expressiveness immanent in scores. We express ourselves in the way we take our tea, the way we sign our name, whether our desks are tidy, whether our socks match and, yes, the way in which we draw our manuscripts. All of these say something small about our ideals and our priorities; things to do with the little idiosyncrasies of approach that make up a particular personality. However, trying to put it into words would make it sound pretty hazy and trivial, yet it’s frequently quite the opposite. For example, take a look below at a sketch by Beethoven alongside one by Webern (both of which are available to look at in the Reference Facsimile collection on the back wall of the North Library).

Facsimile page of Beethoven's score of piano sonata opus 109

From Beethoven, Ludwig van. Piano Sonata op. 109 (facsimile). New York: Robert Owen Lehman Foundation, 1965. (printed L.Van Leer & Co: Netherlands). 29

Facsmile sketch of a page from Webern's String trio opus 20

From Webern, Anton von. Sketches (1926-1945), (facsimile). Commentary by Ernst Krenek. New York: Carl Fischer, 1968. Plate 5

We can say things like: Beethoven thought in broad lines, filling in spaces of a pre-conceived larger structure quickly, somewhat haphazardly, sometimes scribbling extra material not strictly intended for the piece at hand. Whereas Webern always seemed to work with the minute detail and build the structure up from there, generating material that remained strictly within the confines of the current piece (see Ernst Krenek’s commentary preceding Webern sketches in the reference facsimile collection for more detailed information). Judging by the large swathes of crossings-out, one thing they seem to have in common is that they were both pretty ruthless self-editors. Yet, while this is all interesting insight into two very different compositional methods, none of this really captures that very general sense of fascination that comes with simply seeing the expressiveness of their musical handwriting. Like the music itself it seems to tell you much about the composer, but yet at the same time, remains thoroughly ambiguous.

For another particularly poignant example of a handwritten score serving as something of a self-portrait, below is a page of the original score of Alfred Schnittke’s last symphony. At times it’s near completely illegible due to the composer suffering the consequences of a series of crippling strokes which were to eventually kill him. There’s this real sense of effort in all those shaky barlines and spidery noteheads. The whole document is pervaded with a sense of the difficulty Schnittke had as he struggled to pursue his art despite his debilitating illness.

Sometimes composers go further and play around with the nature of the notation in much more striking ways than merely possessing a unique style of calligraphy. There have been many examples of composers throughout the centuries who have cared about the visual aspect of their scores, and the twentieth century seems to have produced them in abundance, and more often than not, due to their idiosyncrasy, the scores are hand-drawn. Augenmusik (literally, eye music) is the term that’s generally used to refer to music that has features of the notation that are not accessible to anyone who is just listening. An early example of this kind of practice can be seen in a couple of famous scores by Baude Cordier (ca.1380- ca.1440) in his chanson about love, Belle, bonne, sage (left page), as well as his Tout par compass suy composes (right page), both from the Chantilly codex.

One can find a very similar approach, much closer to our time, in many of the scores of George Crumb. Crumb’s father was a professional copyist and the composer often drew on this inherited skill to create visually striking, picturesque scores. For example, morphing four staves of a string quartet to one when playing in unison, or curving staves into circles and spirals to represent some of his extra-musical ideas. But much more down to earth than their supposed evocation of mysticism, infinity or cosmic recurrence, I simply find the skill involved in drawing something like this by hand really quite extraordinary.

Personally, I always copy my scores out by hand. I like how it slows me down and brings me a little closer to the music. I find it to be a deeply satisfying and relaxing process, often taking whole weekends and vast quantities of tea, and I know I’m not alone in this. There are plenty of composers who prefer to write out their final versions themselves, for all kinds of reasons. A personal all-time favourite is Morton Feldman. The larger-than-life personality that comes across in interviews and anecdotes seems delightfully at odds with the delicate colours and soft, ambiguous patterns of his music, as well as the meticulous detail of many of his scores. For him, the materials with which he worked were vital elements in his compositional process.  He talked about how he often composed directly in pen, using his quantity of crossings-out to gauge whether he was sufficiently concentrated on the work at hand. When it comes to the scores of his close friend, John Cage, the style is quite different. Cage’s calligraphy is extremely heavy, bold and distinctive (so much so that someone has actually produced a Cage font).

Another great composer for calligraphy enthusiasts is Michael Finnissy. A case in point being that I once heard Finnissy say during a lecture that he was the last customer of the last quill shop in London. Almost all of his scores are facsimiles of his own exquisite hand, and the level of care and attention to detail is really astonishing. His scores can sometimes be fearsome-looking in their notational intricacy, yet when I heard some of his piano works for the first time I was surprised that the level of detail in the score translates into music that is often fearsome due to its raw aggressive energy rather than any kind of notational fussiness.

Music printing and personal notation software have brought with them all kinds of advantages, and believe me, I wouldn’t want rid of them (especially when it comes to producing performers’ parts!). But we live in a complex, multifaceted world, and all too often when something new comes along with all its obvious advantages, whatever is lacking gets forgotten in the excitement. When considered using the broadest criteria, what is new is very rarely better in every way than what it replaces. Often, the older way of doing things has some combination of time, sustainability, individuality and simplicity on its side – and, emerging from these qualities, beauty tends to make an appearance too. I for one hope that composers never fully abandon the skill of drawing their music by hand, for if they did we would lose a rich source of insight into the expressive minutiae of individual creativity.

Here are just a few examples from the composers mentioned. You’ll find plenty more throughout the collection. Often it will say on the catalogue entry whether scores are a facsimile of the composer’s hand.

I would also recommend taking a trip to the oversize section at the far end of the South Library, as this is where some of the most extravagant examples are to be found.

Cage examples:

782.99 CAG (OVERSIZE) Water Music

781.4 CAG Music of Changes: solo piano

782.99 CAG String Quartet in four parts

782.99 CAG Music Walk

 

Finnissy examples:

782.02 FIN Dilok: Oboe Percussion

781.4 FIN Reels: piano solo

782 FIN Molly House: unspecified instrumentation

782.69 FIN Terekkeme: harpsichord

 

Feldman examples:

782.99 FEL Coptic Light : for orchestra (1986)

782.99 FEL For Philip Guston : for flute, percussion and piano (1984)

782.7213 FEL Clarinet and string quartet (1983)

782.99 FEL Flute and orchestra, (1977/1978)

 

A small selection of some other composers with handwritten scores in the collection:

Stephen Montague, Gyogy Ligeti, Salvatore Sciarrino, Kevin Volans, Peter Garland, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Luciano Berio… and many more.

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3 thoughts on “The delights of handwritten scores

  1. Pingback: New Exhibition: Facsimile Scores in the Jerwood Library | Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts

  2. glad I found this! I want to get my son some sort of prints of original scores from Ravel, Rachmanioff, and chopin, – his 3 fav composers. Any idea where I can get them? I am fine with just the paper and doing the framing, etc myself. thank you!!

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