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.


Behind the scenes at the processing desk

It’s the burning question surely on the mind of every undergraduate: What exactly goes on in that mysterious library back office?

The processing table: where it all happens

Well, as a Library Assistant, one of the tasks I spend the most time on when I’m not at the issue desk is processing. This partly involves getting our new stock ready for general circulation (adding all the features that make an item recognizable as belonging to the library: a shelf mark, date label, often some kind of protective cover, and a plethora of stickers and stamps … I won’t list them!). But the aspect of processing work that I enjoy by far the most is repair – bringing back to life our older items that are in need of some TLC. Having worked in medical libraries too (where it’s not unusual for earlier editions of popular resources to be thrown out as soon as a more recent version is available), one of the great pleasures of working in a music library is being able to handle our older stock – sheet music that is often a century or more old – on a day-to-day basis. Despite a fair amount of wear and tear, it’s usually possible to work some restorative magic on these items, and to get them into a condition where they are ready for circulation once more.

Library copy of Bantock’s Hamabdil (Chester, 1919), before repair

For example, this 1919 edition of (Trinity alumnus) Granville Bantok’s Hamabdil for solo cello is a typical example of older stock which – with a small amount of time invested – can once again become usable. I gave it a new shelf-mark label, carefully covered the dog-eared front cover in clear plastic, and secured the frayed and torn edges of each page with our trusty ‘invisible’ tape (clear tape that can still be written over in pencil; ideal for mending sheet music!).

Library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877), front cover

This contact with older items can open up another world, often especially through aspects of a score that are peripheral to the musical content itself. For example, at the processing desk I recently stumbled across this vocal score of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (published c. 1877 by Novello, Ewer & Co). The striking design and typography of the score’s front cover is just the starting point here: on the inside cover we have an advert for The Musical Times, ‘the largest and best Musical Journal in existence … [containing] Occasional Notes on passing events, and accounts of Musical Performances in all provincial towns, as well as those which take place on the Continent, in the Colonies, and wherever the Art is cultivated.’ On the back cover, meanwhile, ‘Messrs. NOVELLO, EWER & Co. beg to announce’ that a list of works, including Mozart’s Requiem Mass and Gounod’s Messe Solennelle ‘may now be had at a uniform rate of ONE SHILLING EACH.’

Exposed manuscript used as spine reinforcement in a library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877)

Exposed manuscript used as spine reinforcement in a library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877)

However, it’s when I look at the necessary repairs for this score that things get really interesting. A number of this copy’s pages have broken away from the book’s binding, revealing the inside of the spine. Seemingly tucked inside the spine is yet more manuscript – a serendipitiously-positioned footer (see image below) informs us that this is part of a Novello score for Handel’s Messiah. Jubilant at this unexpected discovery, I consult our cataloguer Helen, who tells me that sheets of paper (a then valuable commodity) from old copies were often used as binding reinforcement for new books – a practice spanning centuries which has led to discoveries of rare manuscript fragments from 13th-century Notre Dame and medieval Hebrew texts, to name a few. Libraries holding books which contain important fragments in the binding might choose to repair the book in a way that simultaneously conserves and renders visible the fragment in the spine. In our case though, pragmatism won the day, and, somewhat sadly, I sealed up the pages so that the snippet from Handel’s Messiah was once again hidden from view.

As I mentioned earlier, the sense of contact with the past while working at the processing desk often extends beyond the direct content of the item itself. I’m frequently jolted into an awareness of another life lived: old train or concert tickets tumbling out of a score, a piece of typed correspondence tucked away for safekeeping (or perhaps as a makeshift bookmark), a pertinent inscription or detailed marginalia handwritten inside. These layers give a glimpse into the usually hidden story of a book’s use and history; while, simultaneously, the book becomes a vehicle for a brief imagining of another’s life at another time. The fact that this all comes from an enduring physical object held in one’s hand provides a useful reminder of our seemingly unequivocal cascade into digital life, where the nature of our everyday communications (once through physical, tangible objects; now through ephemeral yet supposedly always traceable – although frequently forgettable – digital content) has fundamentally changed. With digital versions of works (e-books; digital music files; and so on), at least as they stand, what you see is what you get: there may be hidden extras inserted by the creator, or online versions which allow commentary (through interfaces such as SoundCloud, for instance), but the digital format doesn’t allow you – within a piece of content that you own, at least – to gain a glimpse of how someone else has used or responded to the work. Perhaps at a time where reviews and comment are available to most of us (whether to write or consume) at a click of a button, this isn’t so important, but I can’t help feeling that with this move from analogue to predominantly digital, something personal is being lost.

On this issue, news of two recent publications has caught my eye; taking dramatically different approaches, both go some way to counter concerns about the sometimes sterile feel of products consumed in our digital world. The first is a recently published novel – S. created by J.J. Abbrams (co-creator of TV series Lost, and the new director of Star Trek) and Doug Dorst (Canongate Books, 2013). The book itself is produced as an old library book, complete with detailed annotations from two different ‘readers’ (who, it turns out, are leaving notes within the book for each other), and is full of loose-leaf ephemera – newspaper cuttings, letters, postcards, and so on – for the reader to explore. Not only is the library book a stand-alone novel, but its annotations and ephemera provide a counter-narrative which explores both the relationship between the book’s two fictional readers, and their collective relationship with the text and author in question. While Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian, praises the work’s authors for captivating readers through the ‘antihistorical concept of an analogue interactive book’, ironically, librarians have been seriously tested by the publication, in particular by the need to keep track of its masses of ephemera on each loan and return.

My second example is The Mozart Project (Pipedreams Media, 2014), to which Trinity Laban’s John Irving is a major contributor. An interactive book designed for iPad, the project was conceived by two non-musicians, and provides not only 10 chapters on Mozart’s life and works by eminent scholars, but also accompanying audio excerpts, timelines, maps, video interviews with leading Mozart performers, and roundtable discussions with the authors, all in an attractive, easy-to-use format. With so much integrated, high-quality material in a range of media that encourages both sustained, concentrated engagement and ‘dipping in’, the concept offers a sense of discovery not often found in a traditional e-book format. Where a printed, previously-used analogue book might offer flashes of awareness of a previous readership (ephemera fluttering to the floor; annotations in the margins) and, perhaps, the opportunity to critically engage with that readership’s experience of the work, The Mozart Project promises an all-round experience living in the present, with content updates and the opportunity for readers to pose questions to the book’s authors online.

This concept of a living, breathing resource is a compelling one, and in drawing to a close, this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the work currently being undertaken in the digital humanities, which – at its best – unites the sometimes opposing worlds of tangible historical object and accessible, fluid digital media. For example, the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM) provides images of thousands of medieval manuscripts, substantially decreasing people’s obstacles to engaging in these manuscripts through location or cost, while simultaneously creating and archiving digital records of manuscript fragments which may be extremely vulnerable to future deterioration or loss. And, finally, the Online Chopin Variorum Edition (OCVE) takes things a step further, providing access to images of Chopin’s manuscripts and first editions within the structure of a research project which, amongst other questions, aims to interrogate how ‘technology [might] fundamentally alter the musician’s and the musicologist’s understanding of different sources, their often complex interrelationships, and their significance as artistic and cultural artifacts within a rich history of publication, pedagogy, and performance’. The resource is rich in scholarly commentary, but, crucially, the interface also allows users to make their own (public or private) annotations, thereby creating a fluid, ‘dynamic’ edition with limitless finely-granulated variations in overall content.

And so, to return to the original theme of this post, there are interesting times ahead behind the scenes in the music library office. There will always be books and scores to repair, I am sure, and I certainly hope that old train tickets and letters will continue to fall from their pages for many years to come. But the examples I’ve described above give me hope that the inevitable ascendance of the digital sphere will open up more worlds – bright, enthralling, accessible and unifying – that it closes.