Stephen Montague talks to the Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts

photo of stephen montague

On Friday 9th March there will be a celebration of the music of Trinity Laban professor Stephen Montague at St John’s, Smith Square. To commemorate this my colleague James Luff has mounted an exhibition featuring, among other things, photographs lent by the composer documenting his various exploits. To accompany this we wrote to Stephen asking some questions about pieces featured in his birthday concert and for his thoughts on contemporary music in general. Here is our correspondence:

JLPA: Haiku for piano, tape and electronics is to be performed at your birthday concert, and features a live piano with some kind of synthesised processing and pre-recorded material. Could you explain a little about the genesis of the piece, the use it makes of electronics, and some of its influences?

SM: In the summer of 1986 I went to the San Francisco Bay area for the first time, working for a month in Stanford University’s computer studios (CCRMA). While I was there I was struck by the multiplicity of ethnic groups, particularly Asian, now indigenous to the area. It became clear to me for the first time why so many West Coast American composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley and others found so much inspiration in Eastern musics.

While I was in California the British pianist Philip Mead commissioned me to write a new piano work using live electronics & tape. That commission resulted in Haiku (1987). The live electronics flange ‘detunes’ the piano sound and along with a computer generated ‘tape’ drone creates a rather what I’d like to think of as a unique Asian/American ‘mid-Pacific’, sound world. Haiku began as a series of small gestures (haiku) but ultimately expanded to 13 min. work. The premiere was already advertised so the title stuck.

JLPA: Hound Dog Blues
Could you say a little about your interest in influences from outside the classical domain (as it is normally understood)? Obviously blues plays a part: could you explain how, and what element(s) of the blues is it that you wanted to incorporate into the piece?

SM: My teens in the late 1950s and 60s were in the American Deep South in a small town close to the Georgia border. There was always something evocative about listening to a black musician playing the Blues in a dark smokey bar. Unlike the classic music I was studying at university, jazz seemed to somehow magically and effortlessly flow from the performer’s fingers. I always liked that fluid image so from time to time I’ve visited those dusty memories and they’ve inspired a few small jazz works. It’s like a relaxing interlude between my struggles with large classical forms. There are two jazz/blues inspired works premiered on my 9 March Birthday Concert at St. Johns, Smith Square – Hound Dog Blues (2013) and Beguiled (2015). They’re programmed as ‘coloured threads’ in the concert’s sonic tapestry.

JLPA: Concerto for Piano & Orchestra
Could you say something about the musical materials you based this piece on; what your aesthetic aims were, whether you had any particular models in mind?

SM: My Piano Concerto was commissioned by the 1997 BBC Proms and premiered in the Royal Albert Hall by virtuoso Rolf Hind and the Orchestra of St Johns (John Lubbock conductor).

The concerto is for the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra, but is not always traditional. Although I’ve lived in Britain since 1974 my musical heroes seem to remain transatlantic:  I admire Charles Ives’s unapologetic juxtaposition of vernacular music and the avant-garde, Henry Cowell’s irreverent use of fist, arm and elbow clusters, the propulsive energy of minimalism and John Cage’s radical dictum that ‘all sound is music’.  The Concerto is a confluence and synthesis of these interests in my American musical roots.

As a child I lived in the Deep South where the scars of the American Civil War (1861-65) never stopped festering and the rich vernacular music of that era continued to stir passions.  Every school child knew folksongs like John Henry and Negro spirituals such as Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?  Some of the more rousing Civil War songs like Dixie required Southerners to stand at fevered attention while further north, The Battle Hymn of the Republic sent a chill down the spine of every Northern patriot.

Charles Ives’ accounts of his childhood in a small New England town at the end of the last century are well known.  They especially resonate for me because of my own similar experiences two generations later.  In the South there were also parades, marching bands, church meetings, hymns, folk and gospel music but set in the heavy air of a sweltering heat.  Those images still burn brightly and often provide material for my compositional work especially in this concerto.

JLPA: What are your thoughts about contemporary classical music, particularly in the UK?

SM: The wonderful thing about living at this point in the 21st century is the wide spectrum of contemporary music(s) available to audiences currently. In the early 1960s when I was studying classical music ‘serious music’ was really only 12 tone music- hard core. Anything else was considered pandering to an audience and that was discouraged in most conservatoires. Thank god times have radically changed since then! That public voted with their feet. Now, anything goes which is wonderful for the composer and even better for the audience. An important caveat however still remains- it must be done extremely well.

The new music scene here in Britain is vibrant and pretty healthy but there is a new government health warning and that comes in the form of worrying financial cuts to the arts. We all must not be complacent in such insidious erosion. We should be duty bound to lobby MPs and reverse this trend immediately. The Arts are vital to the health of the nation and should be protected at all costs!

JLPA: Do you have any thoughts about the materials available to contemporary composers, for example in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm? (From what I’ve seen of your output you don’t have a dogmatic view on, for example, the use of tonal harmonic and melodic materials.)

SM: I think the most valuable thing a composer can do is to listen to lots and lots of music – music from all genres from pop to the most avant-garde. Listening to music is the best teacher you can possibly have but you actually need to stop often, sit down, and listen without distraction. Concentrate! All music is a great textbook with both the questions and  the composers’ answers right there in front of you. For free! Learn from listening and studying and you’ll get better.

Visit Stephen Montague’s website here

photo of stephen montague


Golden Glories

As Trinity Laban’s Gold Medal showcase approaches, what better opportunity to celebrate all things golden in the Jerwood Library!

Our display case currently features a few choice aureate items:


Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is based on David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West and is set during the Californian gold rush. Set in a 19th century mining camp, the plot includes features that would later become tropes of wild west films: an assertive female saloon owner, a mysterious stranger and a poker game that decides a man’s life.

Le Coq D’Or was Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera, with Vladimir Belsky’s libretto deriving from Pushkin’s poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel. It was completed in 1907 but immediately banned by the government, who, in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war, clearly didn’t take kindly to the subject of a tsar whose questionable decisions resulted in catastrophe. It didn’t receive its first performance until 1909, a year after the composer’s death.

Staying in Russia, Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age was based around a Soviet football team visiting a western city during an industrial exhibition. Filled with jazz and popular musical influences from the West, the ballet suite on display includes the popular “wrong note” Polka which satirized League of Nations politicians.

Britten’s The Golden Vanity is subtitled “a vaudeville for boys and piano after the old English ballad”.  The boys are divided into two groups, representing the ship’s company of The Golden Vanity and the pirates of the Turkish Galilee. Instructions in the score include that it should be performed “in costume but without scenery” and “the action – swimming, cannon-firing, drowning, etc. – should be mimed in a simple way and only a few basic properties, such as telescopes and a rope, are needed… a drum should be used for the sound of cannon fire”.

Following the runaway success of the Lion King, Elton John and Tim Rice once again joined forces in composing original songs for The Road to Eldorado, the 2000 animation produced by DreamWorks telling the story of two con artists seeking out the legendary city of gold. Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg stated: “We wanted the songs sung by Elton to be the heart and soul of the movie—not only helping to tell the story, but revealing what’s happening beneath the surface.”[1]

Finally, A Goldfish Bowl is the autobiography of Elisabeth Lutyens, published in 1972, eleven years before her death. In it we learn that as a crying baby she scared away burglars in the next room, she was made to learn the violin at the age of eight as a salutary occupational therapy to stop her chronic nail-biting, and speaking of her decision to become a composer, “I became involved in something the family neither knew of nor cared for, so that no one could spoil it for me. Too bad if I had no talent – I would simply have to acquire one; a long process, a journey of discovery. But processes and journeys are as interesting and rewarding as arrivals”.[2]

[1] The Road to Eldorado: Production Notes <>

[2] Elisabeth Lutyens, A Goldfish Bowl (London: Cassell, 1972), 10.

Hundreds of new pieces for strings

As part of the ‘Printed Music Strategic Acquisition Plan 2013/14 – 2018/19′, developed by our fantastic enquiries and printed music acquisitions Librarian, Oliver Witkin, the current display in the small library display cabinet highlights the fact that the library has recently been concentrating on boosting its collection of music for strings.

String players – Looking for some new repertoire?Violin wordcloud

Further to my colleague’s blog post,  I wanted to highlight the fact that the library has been purchasing lots of new music not only for violin, but also for viola, cello, double bass and guitar. I  noticed that during both the Summer and Autumn terms that I had been processing lots of shiny new music by composers such as Henze, Gubaidulina, Dallapiccola, Rautavaara, Schnittke, Penderecki and Ysaye to name but a few. There’s been so much more music coming through for the other instruments of the string family, and as a very rusty string player myself, I wanted to get the message out about all this great new music available in the Jerwood Library.

New Schott editions for strings

New Schott editions for strings (Cover images reproduced with permission from Schott Music Ltd.)

Cello wordcloudFor the current display, I wanted to highlight some of the new Schott Music editions we have recently acquired. They’re all available to borrow – just come and speak to a member of library staff if you’d like to borrow one. Also, don’t forget to keep an eye on our ‘New in the Jerwood Library‘ shelves  near the library issue desk where we display a taste of some of the new library stock.  Currently there’s a mixture of new printed music for strings, new books and new DVDs. You can also browse new music additions to the catalogue here.


Renewing items from the Jerwood Library

Picture of a library book's date label showing due date stamps

Photo credit: 140810-08 by waferboard, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Got an email from the library reminding you your items are due back? Or, heaven forbid, that they are overdue and fines are building up?

Have no fear: watch our 90 second video (scroll down to ‘Jerwood Library Catalogue – renew my items on loan’) and discover how to renew your items instantly online via the Jerwood Library catalogue!

If you prefer written instructions:

  1. Log in with your usual username and password (same as Moodle)
  2. Click on My Account then Renew items on my card
  3. Tick the items to renew (or choose Renew all) then click Renew selected items
  4. Make a note of the new due date(s) on the next page. If an item cannot be renewed a message should explain why, and you’ll need to bring it in to the library to return it or renew it in person.

If you encounter any problems renewing your items, email the library or contact us on 020 8305 3951 / the web chat box on the catalogue (during library opening hours only). If you can’t log in at all, please try resetting your password before contacting us.


Feldman Audio DVDs – Complete Music for Piano and Strings

CD covers reproduced with permission. Original photography by Brian Slater.

The Jerwood Library has just acquired an excellent three-volume set of Morton Feldman’s complete music for piano and strings as performed by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet, including Trinity Laban’s head of strings, Nic Pendlebury.

Released by Matchless Recordings, the set comes in the unusual format of audio DVDs, enabling the often enormous length of Feldman’s later works to be presented on a single disc.

The discs can be found shelved in the chamber music section of the library’s CDs, under CHA: FEL


New Music for Violin

We have recently added over 200 new items to the Jerwood Library’s collection of violin music; works by composers such as James Dillion, Philip Glass, Christian Wolff, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, Elliot Carter, Lou Harrison, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Oliver Knussen, David Matthews, Isang Yun, and Eugene Ysaye. There are also new additions from the classical and romantic repertoire, and a variety of anthologies, methods, studies, exercises and workbooks.

Some of the new additions to our violin section. Covers reproduced with permission from the publisher.

A regularly updated list of our most recent acquisitions can be found here (this page is regularly updated). Please also keep an eye out for new items displayed on the recent acquisitions shelves in the library.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me on 020 8330 3950 e-mail:


Oliver’s Choice: Cosi Fan Tutte

Librarian Oliver Witkin has chosen to display in the library small exhibition cabinet a facsimile reproduction of Mozart’s original manuscript score for Cosi fan Tutte, one of a number of facsimiles of Mozart’s late operas which are held in the Jerwood Library’s reference collection. These facsimiles offer a unique insight into Mozart’s working methods [REFERENCE FACSIMILE COLLECTION: MOZ]

Conventional wisdom in respect of this opera has been kinder to Mozart than it has to his librettist, Da Ponte. Cosi fan Tutte, the third and final collaboration between the two and the only one which is not based on a singular literary source, has historically been perceived as an opera of sublime music that is, to a greater or lesser extent, spoiled by its of library exhibition case

While not much is known about the earliest performances of Cosi fan Tutte following its premiere in 1790, the notion that its libretto is frivolous and even immoral was widespread throughout the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th. A number of eminent figures such as Beethoven and Wagner joined the chorus of disapproval. Performances were heavily revised and edited to appease the sensibilities of the times and it was only towards the middle of the 20th century that the opera found a much surer footing in the concert repertoire in its original and unexpurgated form.

While few people today would object to the play on moral grounds, even for a modern audience the relationship between the music and libretto seems puzzling. Mozart’s joyful but occasionally dark and melancholy music appears as the backdrop to a seemingly trivial comedy. This raises certain questions as to the intent of both composer and librettist. If there is a mystery here, it is not one which we can resolve by looking back at contemporaneous accounts of the opera – which might offer some clues as to how the work was conceived – they simply don’t exist.

The theme of the opera concerns the lovers’ expectations of sexual fidelity. The experiment, set up as a play within a play. is designed to test the truth value of this moral order and to reveal the true character of human nature. Behind it, one can sense the growing insecurity of the moral order in the modern world. This is perhaps reflected in some of the sadness that can be discerned in Mozart’s music. What appears, then, to be a trivial story, at odds with the music, is in fact a much more significant drama which is illuminated by it. Irony runs throughout the whole of this work. People are not what they appear to be in the eyes of others.

There is yet another aspect of the play; this concerns the relationship between men and women. It could be argued that there is something peculiarly modern about this, too. Women are shown to have passions and desires which are comparable with men, undermining the prevalent attitudes towards relations between the sexes in the society of Mozart and Da Ponte’s time. The audience is led, through a gentle comedy, to consider these aspects of a changing world.

It’s possible to see this opera as existing on more than one level. You can take it at face value and appreciate it as a light-hearted comedy, or you can look beneath the surface at the way in which it subtly challenges and undermines the moral certainties of the traditional order.



Working on assignments at home over Easter?

Happy Easter!

It’s the end of term! A time to head back home, discover how many Easter eggs your doting family are going to indulge you with this year, and – once the sugar rush has subsided – reluctantly concede that you’d better get cracking (see what I did there? 🙂 ) on the assignments that are due for submission early in the summer term.

Except… you reach into your hastily-packed suitcase, burrow your way down through a term’s worth of dirty laundry, and your heart sinks on realizing the photocopy you made of that crucial journal article from the Jerwood Library is still languishing on your bedroom floor some 200 miles away.

So what do you do now? Firstly, don’t panic – there’s a good chance that all is not lost!

In the first instance, check whether the article comes from one of the titles Trinity Laban subscribes to as an ejournal. If you can remember which journal it is from, we’d recommend you start by going to our A-Z listing, which will indicate whether we hold it in printed form or electronically. Otherwise, if you can only remember the author or article title, you could try searching for these on QuickSearch, and if we have electronic access you’ll find a direct link to the article.

Quicksearch full text link

All our electronic resources are accessible away from the conservatoire, and you’ll just need to enter your usual Trinity Laban username and password (the same one you use for Moodle etc.)

If Trinity Laban doesn’t have an ejournal subscription, fear not, there are other avenues to explore. Students in the Faculty of Music can take advantage of the SCONUL Access Scheme, which allows reciprocal access to other Higher Education Institution (HEI) Libraries in the UK. If you have several universities within fairly close vicinity it would be worth checking SUNCAT which is a catalogue that searches the periodical holdings of many UK HEIs simultaneously. Otherwise you could just check the library catalogue of an institution within easy reach of you. If you find one of these libraries has the journal you need, check on the SCONUL Access website whether that the library is a member of the scheme. If it is, follow the instructions to apply for membership, and we will authorise that application, which will generate an email which you can take along to the university library (I’m afraid we can only do this if you have no outstanding fines with the Jerwood Library though, so that’s a good reason to keep your account in good order!)

Even if the University isn’t a member of SCONUL Access, you might want to get in touch with their library, as they may offer alternative access e.g. through a paid day-pass.

Finally, another option is to investigate whether the journal is included within the Access to Research initiative, which provides walk-in access to a wide range of academic ejournals in public libraries in the UK. This includes 48 ejournals in the field of music. But first you’ll need to check that your local public library is participating in the initiative.

Of course, journals aren’t the only type of material you can find online. We have an ever-growing collection of ebooks, and also don’t forget our audio and video streaming services available to search individually or simultaneously via QuickSearch if you want to listen to / watch recordings. Or if a title isn’t available as an ebook, and your classmates have beaten you to borrowing it from the Jerwood Library, you could also make use of SCONUL Access to get hold of that from a local university library. Whether or not you can take it away will depend what programme you’re studying on – it will become clear once you complete your application. To locate a library holding the book you need, we’d recommend you search COPAC, which operates along the same lines as SUNCAT, but isn’t only limited to journals.

If you do have any difficulties whilst you’re away from college, feel free to drop us an email at and we’ll do our best to assist.




eStream at Trinity Laban – the Jerwood Library perspective

Just in case you have yet to find your way to the eStream links on Moodle, we thought you might like to know a bit more about what eStream is and to have a bit of an introduction to some of its more obscure corners.

1st imageMany of you will already have uploaded video content for assignments, class teaching and so on. However, you may still be unaware that eStream is also where we keep the recordings we take off-air under the terms of our educational recording licence. This allows us to build up a permanent collection of useful programmes broadcast by the BBC and Channel 4. Programmes are scheduled for recording onto eStream by staff at the Laban and Jerwood libraries. In the case of the Jerwood Library selections, which is what this post is mainly about, the programmes selection is largely made by library staff with welcome suggestions received from Faculty staff, and, hopefully in the future, an increasing number of students.

What programmes do we choose? The criteria are broad, including documentaries about aspects of music and music makers, performances – especially première performances – programmes featuring Trinity Laban staff and students, and performances of unusual repertoire. There is a mixture of radio (audio only) and TV (video) recordings and the archive is growing continually.

If you know of an upcoming BBC or Channel 4 programme you think we should record, for instance, it features you and/or other Trinity Laban folks, or you would find it especially relevant to your studies, let us know. Similarly, if you have just seen or heard an interesting programme – and this often happens with the ‘magazine’ type programme (e.g. Radio 3’s In-tune) where the content is not listed in detail in the scheduler but you heard a useful snippet you think others would be interested in – let us know. Bear in mind that we have a window of about a week (like iPlayer) in which we can capture past content.

How do you search for eStream off-air r2nd imageecordings?

Lurking at the bottom of the library links tab on Moodle, there are the on-site and off-site links to eStream. Make sure you choose the appropriate one for where you are!

You can type keywords into the search box on the eStream homepage and then filter your search by various things, including, under the ‘category’ tab, by TV / Radio 3rd imagebroadcasts. Your keywords match words in headings and descriptions.

Another way of finding the recordings scheduled by Jerwood staff is via the Jerwood Library catalogue. We catalogue the programmes, adding our usual subject terms and providing links through to eStream. These work in much the same way as the links to our ebooks and online journals. This means that when you are using the Jerwood catalogue for your music searches, relevant links to eStream broadcasts will also appear among your results. Easy!

So now for the fun bit – this is the moment for non-Trinity Laban staff and students to look away. Come back when we post our next blog entry!

Here are ten eStream off-air recordings to give you a concrete idea of what the collection contains. Clicking on the links below will generally take you to the eStream login page where Trinity Laban staff and students can enter their usual login details to listen to or watch the programme. (Please note, under the terms of the ERA licence these programmes are only available to Trinity Laban folks currently in the UK – apologies to anyone else reading this blog!)

  • First up Guitar heroes at the BBC, a compilation of performances featuring guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Peter Townshend […] broadcast on BBC FOUR on 16/11/14.
  • Next: Silk stockings, a Cole Porter-scored remake of Ninotchka in which a beautiful Soviet girl, sent on a mission to the West, falls under the spell of decadent Paris. Broadcast on BBC TWO on 25 October, 2014.
  • Then there is an inspirational documentary: New Congo calling: an African orchestra in Britain charting about the extraordinary story of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste broadcast on BBC FOUR on 16 November 2014.
  • Another interesting documentary deals with the role of the long-playing recording in shaping popular music: When albums ruled the world was broadcast on BBC FOUR on 3 December 2014.
  • On 16 January 2015 BBC FOUR broadcast a documentary about Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ (the Jerwood library full catalogue entry details the content).
  • The episode of Jazz Line-up broadcast on 7 February 2015 entitled Shakespeare Songs, featured saxophonist Andy Sheppard and pianist Guillaume de Chassey performing music inspired by Shakespeare at the 2014 London Jazz Festival.
  • Eighteenth century English soprano, Nancy Storace was the subject of Catherine Bott’s investigation into Mozart’s English soprano, broadcast on Radio 4 on 18 October 2014.
  • Do you remember that there was a Jonathan Dove world première at the 2014 BBC Proms but can’t remember the details? Searching the Jerwood catalogue using 4th imageskeywords like <premiere>, <Dove> brings back a list of results including this one for Gaia theory. Find the recording on eStream by clicking on the electronic access link in the Full description tab.
  • The regular Radio 3 Live in Concert programme yields gems like the concert by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the Wigmore Hall broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 24 February 2015 which included songs commissioned by John Woolrich and a world première of Gerald Barry’s Crossing the bar.
  • As a last example, and sadly the recording quality is poor, there is the episode of Radio 3’s In-tune of February 26 2015 which included a world première of Surface/Submerge by current Trinity Laban student composer, Will Handysides. This was commissioned for performance by the Conservatoire’s GMT Ensemble.

We would like feedback on the off-air recordings already in the eStream collection. Please note, we already know there is a problem with some of the Radio 3 recordings having interruptions and squeaks. The signal is problematic and we are working to improve that.

We hope you find the recordings useful, and as mentioned earlier, we welcome suggestions from Music Faculty staff and students for programmes to include. Remember we have a week’s window to schedule future or past programmes. Drop an email to Helen Mason ( or speak to staff at the library issue desk.


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.