About jamesluff

Part-time library assistant at the Jerwood Library, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola – An exhibition on Lionel Tertis

 

photo of Lionel Tertis

Lionel Tertis, c.1903

Currently on display in the Jerwood Library are highlights from the large collection relating to the renowned viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), collected by his biographer John White, and now held in the library archives. Throughout his long career Lionel Tertis worked tirelessly towards raising the status of the viola to a solo recital instrument on a par with the violin and cello. To this end he inspired and performed many new works for the instrument, was a prolific arranger of works originally written for other instruments and even produced his own design for the Tertis-model viola, in pursuit of a stronger, more sonorous tone. The Tertis-White collection comprises Tertis’ manuscript arrangements and annotated copies of music he owned, along with photographs, correspondence, concert programmes and other memorabilia. It was the life’s work of the much-respected violist John White whose definitive biography of Tertis was published in 2006: Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola. 

photo of John White

John White, Tertis’ biographer. ©Melanie Strover

 

TERTIS AND TRINITY LABAN

Trinity Laban’s Faculty of Music (then Trinity College of Music) played a formative role in the development of Lionel Tertis’ career. He studied piano, harmony and violin at the college on an ad hoc basis between 1892 and 1894. On leaving the school Bradbury Turner, principal at the time, wrote to congratulate Tertis with the words ‘Remember, study is unending’.[1] Much later, at a dinner given in his honour in 1962, Tertis spoke of the ‘benefit and musical enthusiasm’ he had received during his studentship at TCM.[2] In 1966 the college awarded him an Honorary Fellowship and, after his death in 1975 his widow Lillian Tertis donated an important collection of Tertis’ scores to the college library, including many of his manuscript arrangements. Now, with the accession of John White’s archive – generously donated by his widow Carol –Trinity Laban holds the largest collection of Lionel Tertis material publically available anywhere.

Lionel Tertis also has a living connection with Trinity Laban through the professors of viola Roger Chase and Rivka Golani. It was Rivka who made the premiere recording of Tertis’ arrangement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the CD of which can be found in the Jerwood library here.

roger-chase

Professor Roger Chase playing Tertis’ 1717 Montagnana Viola. ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010

And it is Roger Chase who can be seen in the photo above playing Tertis’ 1717 Montagnana viola. Moreover, Roger’s teacher Bernard Shore, Tertis’ student and friend, would occasionally take him to Tertis’ house for lessons with Tertis himself. This 17 1/8” viola is the instrument that Tertis used at the height of his career and helped provide the inspiration for his later development of the Tertis-model viola, seeking to find something of the deep sonority of the Montagnana but in a form more manageable for smaller hands.

LIFE

When Tertis began his career he had to work hard in order to overcome public prejudice against the viola as a solo instrument. In his autobiography, Tertis mentions overhearing someone remarking to their neighbour at one of his first solo concerts: ‘I believe a viola is a peculiarly-shaped brass instrument’, such was the lowly status of the instrument at the time. He goes on to implore the ever-increasing number of violinists choosing to take up the viola: ‘strive to enlarge the library of solo viola music, by fair means or foul. Cajole your composer friends to write for it, raid the repertory of the violin, cello or any other instrument, and arrange and transcribe works from their literature suitable for your viola’ – advice that Tertis himself followed throughout his life with the single-minded dedication that was reportedly so characteristic of him.[3] Representing this dedication to enlarging the viola repertoire with arrangements, on display in the exhibition is the original manuscript in Tertis’ hand of his arrangement of Delius’ Violin Sonata no. 2, pictured below.

The original manuscript of Tertis' Viola arrangement of Delius' 2nd Violin Sonata

Excerpt from the original manuscript of Tertis’ Viola arrangement of Delius’ 2nd Violin Sonata

Tertis was a prolific letter writer and on display are a selection of some of the more well-known correspondents from the large collection of letters in the archive. There’s a letter from Edward Elgar discussing and expressing his approval for the viola arrangement Tertis had made of the composer’s much-loved Cello Concerto; a letter from William Walton expressing his thoughts on Tertis’ retirement; an invitation to dinner from British Prime Minister Edward Heath; a note from Ralph Vaughan-Williams apologising for being too old and deaf to conduct a piece for Tertis; a letter from famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and a note from Fritz Kreisler, warmly expressing his friendship.

A particular highlight of the collection, and representative of the important role Tertis played in inspiring new repertoire for the instrument, is his copy of the score of Walton’s Viola Concerto, complete with his markings and a note of thanks to Tertis from the composer: ‘[…]for all you’ve done for this work’. The piece was written for Tertis in 1929 at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and although Tertis was to become a strong advocate and regular performer of the piece, his initial reception of it was decidedly lukewarm. In fact, it was actually Paul Hindemith who gave the premiere. As Tertis writes in his autobiography:

One work of which I did not give the first performance was Walton’s masterly concerto. With shame and contrition I admit that when the composer offered me the first performance I declined it. I was unwell at the time; but what is also true is that I had not learnt to appreciate Walton’s style. The innovations in his musical language, which now seem so logical and so truly in the main-stream of music, then struck me as far-fetched. It took me time to realise what a tower of strength in the literature of the viola is this concerto.[4]

Many other British composers also wrote pieces especially for Tertis, among them John McEwen, Arnold Bax, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Frank Bridge and Harry Farjeon, Vaughan Williams and Arthur Bliss,[5] all of which are represented in the archive.

 

TERTIS-MODEL VIOLA

Tertis also spent much of his life thinking about the ideal shape and size of the viola. If it were built in proportion to the violin or cello it would be too large to play under the chin, yet this smaller size means a compromise in sonority. Tertis’ tone was big, beautiful and powerful and he insisted on playing an especially large viola to help achieve this. In particular it helped produce his desired rich and resonant C-string sound, bordering on the quality of a cello. He had no time for small, nasal sounds from small violas. Seeking to solve this problem for the viola in general, Tertis began a collaboration with the violin and viola maker Arthur Richardson, aiming to develop an instrument large enough to produce a strong, sonorous tone, yet not so unwieldy that it was too difficult to handle. He entered this quest for the perfect size and sound with the kind of single-minded enthusiasm that characterised much of his life, sending plans to makers all over the world and leading to the production of hundreds of instruments built to the specifications he originally developed with Richardson.[6] On display in the exhibition are a selection of plans, diagrams, photographs and correspondence all relating to his famous Tertis-Model Viola.

Although some violas made to the Tertis pattern are still in professional use, in many ways the Tertis-Model has been relegated to an interesting historical development. Many of today’s players get a great sound from violas of various shapes and sizes, giving the player a degree of choice unthinkable in Tertis’ time. Nevertheless, the effort Tertis put into his model has created a huge amount of interest in the whole question of viola size and shape, and has led to the opening up of many new paths of development for the instrument.[7] It is just one of the many ways that Lionel Tertis has left a deep and lasting legacy in the history and development of the modern viola.

 


 

[1] White, John. Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola. (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2006), 3

[2] Quoted in: White. Lionel Tertis, 264

[3] Tertis, Lionel. My Viola and I. (London: Kahn & Averill, 1991), 161

[4] Ibid., 36

[5] Watson Forbes, ‘Tertis, Lionel’ in Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/27716&gt; (accessed January 23, 2017)

[6]  White. Lionel Tertis, 160

[7] Ibid., 169

Exhibition: Experimental Scores from 1950s New York

cabinet-2One of the things that strikes me about the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown in the 1950s is how uneasily it might sit in the library of a conservatoire of music. It represents attitudes to sound, composition and value-judgements like skill, quality, or success and failure which seem to me to be at odds with those of the mainstream of western classical music history. And this seemed to me a good reason to drag it out and examine it under the lights of the library display cabinets.

But first things first – why does this music tend to be grouped together and described as ‘experimental’? Attempts at naming and defining a musical movement seem to me to be doomed to exceptions and over-simplifications, intended as they are to take in the work done by a range of different personalities over a vaguely-defined period of time. Yet, they have their uses. Something new really did seem to happen in the way people were creating and thinking about music in New York City, beginning in the 1950s, and calling this new music ‘experimental’ seems reasonable. At least, John Cage seemed to think so:

“The word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.”  [written in 1955][1]

Cage is the composer most associated with the inception of this new music, but the work of all four men has a further attitude in common; they were all writing music which was at one remove from the person who made it, and thus somewhat distanced from their own tastes and prejudices in favour of a more objective approach to sound. Michael Nyman, in his book on experimental music, also adds that it is music which is somehow distinct from the ‘well-trodden but sanctified path of the post-Renaissance tradition’ of avant-garde composers such as Boulez, Xenakis, Kagel, Berio, Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Bussotti.[2] I’ll come back to that.

John Cage’s famous ‘silent’ piece 4’33’’ was composed and premiered in 1952 and is often the place to start off any discussion about experimental music. Consequently, I almost cringe talking about this piece. It seems to have been picked over again and again, endlessly. However, one of the reasons this is the case is that it’s just such a good example in the way in encapsulates many aspects of the new attitude towards music that began to emerge in the work of a number of composers around the same time in the same place.

cage

John Cage at a drinks reception at the Cage/Cunningham Residency at the Laban Centre, July 1980.  Photo by Peter Sayers (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cage’s piece grew directly out of his realisation that sounds surround us always, even in the quietest of places, and if we attend to them, and accept both intended and unintended sounds into composition, a new attitude to making and listening to music is born – ‘Happy new ears!’, as he put it.[3] His move was to simply provide a time-frame (the duration of which was generated by chance) in which an audience could attend to all the sounds that surround them. And although 4’33’’ is the idea taken to its logical extreme, the emphasis in this new attitude was not the traditional one of prescribing a defined time-object, the materials and structuring of which were calculated and specified in advance. Instead, these composers were more interested in outlining a certain situation in which sounds then occur. It was an attitude of acceptance rather than craftsmanship; an effort to distance one’s self from the composition; and an attempt to bring art and life closer together:[4]

“When a composer feels a responsibility to make, rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest at that point in time vogue of profundity. For he takes himself seriously, wishes to be considered great, and he thereby diminishes his love and increases his fear and concern about what people will think.

 

There are many serious problems confronting such an individual. He must do it better, more impressively, more beautifully, etc. than anybody else. And what, precisely, does this, this beautiful profound object, this masterpiece, have to do with Life? It has this to do with Life: that it is separate from it. Now we see it and now we don’t. When we see it we feel better, and when we are away from it, we don’t feel so good. Life seems shabby and chaotic and disordered, ugly in contrast.”[5]

Describing pieces like the graph pieces of Morton Feldman, in which only the number and relative placement of pitches (high, middle, low) are specified within a time-grid, Cage said that ‘the composer resembles the maker of a camera who allows someone else to take the picture.’[6]

“What is, or seems to be, new in this music? One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity – sound come into its own. The ‘music’ is resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expression of self or personality” [7]

It should already seem quite clear how this attitude is very different from that of the European-classical canon, including the work of the avant-garde at the time. In that tradition the responsibility for managing and calculating all of the musical parameters is laid squarely at the feet of the composer. The emphasis there is on integration, organisation and control as opposed to the impersonal techniques used for merely ‘setting sounds in motion’, in which any possibility of drawing events into some kind of pre-calculated image is impossible because so much is left open until the moment of performance. And indeed, it was the uniqueness of the moment, rather than the uniqueness of something preserved, that interested the experimental composers.

So this brings me to the place experimental music might occupy in a conservatoire of music. After all, it’s here that performance students come to hone an extraordinarily refined skill-set over a period of at least 4 years, with the emphasis being on replicating certain unique and preserved master-pieces. It’s hard-work, and success and failure are very real categories. So it seems understandable that the presence of this different attitude to music-making might sit a little uneasily here – who needs a degree when all you’re doing is ‘projecting sounds in time’? How do you accurately rate the performance of a piece that sounds completely different every time it’s performed?

However, my feeling, for what it’s worth, is that music is not just one thing, and students should be able, if so inclined, to take advantage of their time here to explore it in all its variety. Surely, this is one of the main things the library is here to facilitate. Whether this music seems exciting to one person or empty to another depends ultimately on their temperament, but either way, having it in the collection increases its scope. After all, let’s not forget that this music is hardly ‘new’. In fact, it’s now just about old enough to qualify for a free bus pass.

It’s refreshing that people tend to find the arch-modernist style-police amusing for the vitriol with which they denounced anyone who didn’t plow their particular furrow in the mid-twentieth-century, and this opening-up and moving away from an unhealthy obsession with style can only be a good thing. I know that when I learnt about what was happening in 1950s New York for the first time it opened my ears to new ways of thinking about and listening to music. It didn’t stop me practicing my scales, but it did give me a different take on listening to all the sounds that we normally do our best to ignore; or wondering whether we can, or why we might want to, remove our tastes and prejudices from the things we make. Being exposed to a diversity of values and approaches to music only enriches things.

However, as a final thought, I’ll leave Morton Feldman to muddy the waters. For all this talk of a diversity of approaches, perhaps this supposedly brand-new attitude wasn’t really all that separate from the mainstream avant-garde after all? It seems a good example of how parts of a culture that seem unconnected at the time, when seen in perspective can shed light on each other in interesting ways. All the more reason to welcome this kind of music into the conservatoire library, I’d say.

“What rhapsodizes in today’s ‘cool’ language is its own construction. The fact that men like Boulez and Cage represent opposite extremes of modern mythology is not what is interesting. What is interesting is their similarity. In the music of both men, things are exactly what they are  – no more, no less. In the music of both men, what is heard is indistinguishable from its process. In fact, process itself might be called the zeitgeist of our age.”[8]

 


 

[1] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 13

[2] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1

[3] John Cage, A Year From Monday: Lectures and Writings (Marion Boyars: London, 1968), 30

[4] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4

[5] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 130

[6] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 11

[7] Christian Wolff, quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 30

[8] Morton Feldman, Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman ed. B.H.Friedman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000), 109

James’ Choice: Antonio de Almeida’s score of Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis

a photograph of Antonio de Almeida's copy of Xenakis' Metastasis

Antonio de Almeida’s markings on Xenakis’ Metastasis

This month the library item I’ve decided to highlight is the score for Iannis Xenakis’ (1922-2001) Metastasis from the printed music collection of the conductor Antonio de Almeida (1928-1997), complete with his performance markings. There are a number of reasons for my choice. As well as being a landmark piece of twentieth-century modernism, it’s a visually-striking score on account of its size and intricacy. Moreover, Antonio de Almeida’s pencil markings are a fascinating insight into the practical considerations required for performing a piece like this. It’s also an excellent example of Xenakis’ unique approach to composition, and one with a very explicit connection to his work as an architect.

score

Written in 1953-4, and premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955, Metastasis is Xenakis’ first major work after the completion of his studies with Olivier Messiaen. In this piece, Xenakis lays down the foundation for many of the approaches and attitudes to music composition that were to occupy him for the rest of his career. The work combines an idiosyncratic system for controlling pitch material and an approach to sound best described when he says ‘the sonorities of the orchestra are building materials, like brick, stone and wood […] The subtle structures of orchestral sound masses represent a reality that promises much’.[1] In this piece, each orchestral player has a separate part, and Xenakis combines, on the one hand, the continuous evolution of enormous glissando structures and, on the other, the discontinuous permutation of pitches.

 ‘I was interested in two things in those years. One: I wanted to write a kind of dodecaphonic music with the help of computation – a music whose macroform emerges from a few basic principles. In Metastasis I made computations based on the permutations of intervals, with the help of the axiomatic approach known in mathematics.

Two: I was interested in the continuous changes of chords. […] How to make that change a continuous one? So long as one remains in the same scale, the only solution is a glissando. […] That was the basic idea.’[2]

 

Metastasis is also the first work in which Xenakis’ compositional planning for the piece involved using a two-dimensional projection. Here, time is on the x-axis and pitch on the y-axis, and ruled straight-line paths are bent into curved surfaces.

Composition sketch for Xenakis metastasis showing the basis for the hyperbolic paraboloids of the Philips Pavillion

Image scanned from Bálint András Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 74

Xenakis also employed this technique in later compositions (such as Stratégie and Syrmos), but it’s particularly fascinating how it was also translated directly into his work as an architect. The connection is immediately obvious with how these curves built from multiple straight-line paths (hyperbolic paraboloids) were incorporated into the distinctive shape of his design for the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Exposition Universelle, built during his time working in the office of Le Corbusier. Incidentally, the pavillion had another connection to musical modernism in that it formed the setting for performances of Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique.[3]

expo again

Image by Wouter Hagens, accessed from http://www.archdaily.com/157658/ad-classics-expo-58-philips-pavilion-le-corbusier-and-iannis-xenakis, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The score on display was plucked from the personal printed music library of Antonio de Almeida, housed in the Jerwood Library’s special collections. Consisting of 5,456 volumes, including scores acquired by him from the collections of Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, it’s a wide-ranging collection, reflecting his own diverse musical interests. Alongside the Xenakis score, the collection ranges from other leading lights of twentieth-century modernism, via more mainstream orchestral repertoire of the 19th and 18th century, to composers such as Carlos Chavez, André Grétry, Howard Hanson, Hans Pfitzner and Henri Serpette. Not to mention works by Offenbach and Boccherini, in whom de Almeida had a particular interest. Described by Grove as ‘a conductor of elegance and fastidious detail’, he was also awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Légion d’Honneur.[4]

 


 

[1] Iannis Xenakis quoted in Peter Hoffmann, ‘Xenakis, Iannis’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30654&gt; (Accessed August 25th, 2016)

[2] Iannis Xenakis quoted in Bálint András Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 72.

[3] Peter Hoffmann, ‘Xenakis, Iannis’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30654&gt; (Accessed August 25th, 2016)

[4] Noël Goodwin, ‘Almeida, Antonio (Jacques) de’ in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/00643&gt; (Accessed August 23rd, 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Item of the month: Autograph Manuscript of ‘Fragment for Harold Rutland’ by Sorabji

IMG_0539March’s item of the month is the autograph manuscripts of Fragment for Harold Rutland by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988). Sorabji was a composer, pianist and music critic best known for his enormously long and complex piano works such as Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929-30), which lasts over four hours. The Fragment for Harold Rutland, however, is his shortest piano work and exists in three versions – 1926, 1928 & 1937. On display now are the autograph manuscripts for the 1926 & 1928 versions of the piece.

Sorabji was, in many ways, an outsider. Being born in England in 1892, his homosexuality and Parsi-heritage made him so, as did his self-described ‘mania for privacy’, his many anti-establishment views, and his private musical training. His financial independence also meant that he could ignore any requirements for his music or writing to provide him with an income.

It was in the 1920s that he began to distance his music from ordinary listeners and performers and many of the qualities that are instantly apparent in the Fragment came to the fore. In his piano music he used three or four staves, and sometimes up to seven. His compositions became much more intricately detailed, more fluid in rhythm and a-symmetrical in phrasing, used highly complex counterpoint and harmony, and made great demands of virtuosity and stamina as his works extended to often extraordinary lengths.[1]

Sorabji has written on the cover ‘Harold’s copy – bless his heart and fingers!’

Harold Rutland joined Trinity College of Music in 1957 as a lecturer and examiner, and is also author of the book Trinity College of Music: The First Hundred Years. (783.07 RUT). He was a staunch champion of Sorabji’s music, describing him as ‘one of the very few I would unhesitatingly describe as a genius[…] I will only add that I have always felt honoured by your friendship, and not a little unworthy of it; indeterminate dabbler that I am.’[2]

It was Rutland that gave the first performance of the work at Aeolian Hall in London on 12 October 1927. The occasion was later described by Eric Blom from the Manchester Guardian as…

received with a mixture of derision, indignation, and bewilderment that was perfectly understandable and probably flattering to the composer. It is music that simply will not fit in with any European standards, but neither does it belong to the Orient, which hugs its artistic conventions much more closely than the West. Exotic it certainly is, but its outlandishness is of the spirit and has nothing to do with any terrestrial homesickness. The composer is simply a seeker after an idiom of his own, and one knows from rare hearings of one or two of his works that he is passionately sincere in his quest. It is due to this absolute earnestness that at the second hearing the ‘fragment’ already seemed much clearer than at the first. Even those who intensely dislike this music should thus in the end come at least to respect its fearless attitude.[3]

In addition to the fragment, Sorabji dedicated to Rutland two other piano works: Un nido di scatole (1954) and the Fourth Symphony for Piano Alone (1962-64). The Jerwood Library also has the handwritten dedication to the latter from Sorabji to Rutland saying:

To Harold Rutland, whose independence of mind, admirable freedom from spiritual and moral besotment by contemporary fashions of musical haberdashery, deserves all the affection and respect of his friends among whom I rejoice to subscribe myself. K.S.S


[1] Paul Rapoport and Marc-André Roberge. “Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji.” Grove Music Online.Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 29, 2016,http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/26247.

[2] Letter from Harold Rutland to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, dated London, 24 January 1954.

[3] Blom, Eric, ‘London Recitals’, The Manchester Guardian, 13 October 1927: 6

Jerwood Library Who’s Who: James Luff

JamesTell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Jerwood Library

I work Monday to Thursday each week as a library assistant in the Jerwood Library. I was born in Norwich, Norfolk and first moved to London to study undergraduate music at Goldsmiths and then again for postgraduate philosophy at UCL. Norwich is often referred to affectionately as ‘the graveyard of ambition’ on account of it being small, comfortable and hard to leave. But nice as it is, being a little short on libraries and experimental music, leave I eventually did and have been fortunate enough to find London quite hospitable to me in both libraries and music over the years. I also compose my own music and receive mentorship in that from Kevin Volans and Laurence Crane.

What is a typical day at work like for you?

As a library assistant my time is divided fairly equally between manning the front desk—performing some combination of searching, finding, unjamming, organising, stamping, checking or explaining—and the back office where the role becomes much more one of sticking, stamping, organising, and repairing. As you can see, my role essentially boils down to helping people and organising objects, which I think it’s fair to say are two very satisfying things to do in general.

What’s something you enjoy about your role?

Something that I love about the role is being able to learn about music while at work, and to help facilitate others in their own musical studies. I think music has to be one of the most mysterious things in the universe, and having a job that involves being surrounded by information about it and having new and interesting things constantly passing through my hands is very enjoyable indeed.

Are there any hidden or little-known aspects of your work you’d like to share?

Repairing the old stock is quite a hidden activity, occurring as it does in the depths of the library office and serving to simply keep items in circulation. It’s amazing what wonders can be worked on a decrepit piece of music with an artfully deployed arsenal of tape, string and glue.

Finally, could you tell us something people may not know about you?

I once drove around Mongolia for a month in a van. And very nice it was too.

Mongolia

 

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.