In this week's blog, we're sharing an article written in 2011 by composer Anthony Gilbert on the process of writing scores. It's well worth a read!
By the late 1950s, the gradual process of change that had started with the emergence of two post-war generations of composers, encouraged by the now welcoming attitude of the BBC to new music, was at its peak. This was the point at which I entered music publishing as a copyist and general dogsbody, in due course becoming House Editor for contemporary music at Schotts. Things were changing in this area too - the promotion of performances was much improved; the methods of printing scores for sale, and performance material for hire, were all being modernised too. Scores for sale were now printed by the silk-screen method, which avoided the necessity of engraving onto metal plates. Hire materials were printed by Xerox photocopying if on white manuscript paper, or by the (admittedly smelly) method known as dyelining if written, as they increasingly were, on transparent paper. Perhaps the most obvious change was in appearance. The new printing techniques meant that composers were encouraged to make their scores ready for issue in facsimile, thus taking greater care with layout and legibility. The writing of a score, whether orchestral or instrumental, became an art in itself. Noteheads had to be of a sensible and consistent size, dynamics clear and correctly placed, spacing proportional to rhythm, alignment exact and every system neither too crowded nor too spread out, but filled from margin to margin.
The use of architects’ materials, namely the transparent paper and Indian ink loaded into pens with tubular nibs, made the life of a manuscript almost indefinite; it also made layout-planning much easier. After the first rough draft of a work in pencil on normal manuscript paper, by then elegantly designed by composer and bassist Barry Guy, the whole thing would be copied to the final score pages, again in pencil with care for layout, then over-inked. Once Indian ink was fully dry one could easily rub out the pencil; indeed Indian ink itself or even unwanted staves could be erased using half a razor-blade to lightly scrape them from the surface. One then simply restored the surface by polishing with a fingernail. For the copying of parts one used a standard graphic-art nib; players preferred to read the more shapely script that produced.
What quickly became apparent in almost all the new works that passed through my hands was the close correspondence between the look and the sound of the music. This had enormous promotional benefit. Even the character of a composer’s manuscript and that of the music seemed to correspond. One could use the same adjective to describe both. This can be seen in a pair of Boosey and Hawkes facsimile scores by Maxwell Davies. The composer’s hand in Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), leaning a little to the right, has a kind of crazy urgency, much as in the music itself, whereas the facsimile score of Revelation and Fall, written out just a year earlier, has by contrast a much crisper, more ‘organised’ appearance, corresponding to the very precisely controlled compositional processes in the work.
There is nevertheless great attention to detail in both of these scores, as there is in Alexander Goehr’s manuscripts for Schotts. Goehr, for instance, clearly uses a ruler to keep all stems straight and vertical. In the MS of the Symphony in One Movement, dating from 1969 with revisions in 1971, there’s great poise and delicacy, just as there is in the sound of the orchestral playing. But where the music becomes louder, the noteheads get larger, as do the dynamic markings.
It is worth adding that none of the fairly subtle variations I have described affect the recognizability of a composer’s hand. Nevertheless, the handwritten words in the scores usually have a quite different character from the composers’ everyday handwriting. To me this is clear evidence of the extraordinary transformation that takes place in a composer once engaged in creative work.
By no means all scores were reproduced in facsimile, of course. Some British composers of the pre-war generation preferred to work in a more traditional way. Elisabeth Lutyens had a most elegant hand, but her manuscript scores were not easy to reproduce due to her writing materials, and there were layout problems. This meant adopting the traditional method of processing from the start: editing and correcting the photocopy manuscript, processing, proofreading by at least three people including the composer herself, then printing.
Most instrumental and chamber music, in any case, was processed by a quasi-engraver. At Schotts during these years we mostly used the excellent firms Halstan and Caligraving, printers and lithographers, to process and print all but the most idiosyncratically-notated scores. For these latter, we employed first-rate hand-copyists using a combination of stencils and carefully-drawn lines to produce exquisitely elegant scores and parts to be printed by the silk-screen method.
Michael Tippett’s earlier ink manuscripts were clear and unproblematic, but with success came greater reliance on publisher support. Tippett composed at the piano and then pencilled each passage out on orchestral MS paper, standing at an architect’s raised drawing-board, in a form which was neither short score nor full score (Sir Michael called it a ‘shorthand score’), with gaps where repeats, doublings and duplications occurred. An experienced copyist, effectively an amanuensis, then transformed this into a complete score, subsequently proofread – sometimes by the young Andrew Davis. For a work with voices, a piano reduction was then made by Tippett’s long-time collaborator, Michael Tillett. The pianist and superb sight-reader John Constable was then engaged to play the work through, passage by passage, to enable the composer to determine exact tempo markings. Then all was sent off for processing and final proofreading before the copying of orchestral parts. The involvement of such close colleagues as these became increasingly important as Tippett’s eyesight slowly deteriorated. Special credit should be given to copyist Paul Broom for transforming these later manuscripts into complete scores and parts.
Sir Michael’s, however, was an exceptional case; not many composers needed this degree of practical support. But though some still submit beautifully-written manuscripts, they too are now the exception. When performance royalties fell alarmingly a dozen or so years ago, it became uneconomical for publishers to do much of the work I have described, for all but the most successful. However, by this time user-friendly notation software had become available. So long as we could afford or indeed manage a computer, we composers could now set up our own scores, using Finale, Score or Sibelius. Parts of a variably usable standard could then be quickly extracted. But really it took the publication of such guidebooks as Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars to ensure the production of materials at a truly professional level. Was the personalisation of scores lost? In fact, no, not quite. Each composer adopts an individual approach to layout, choice of software and its related ‘fonts’. Those who know how to manipulate the software can adapt it to create indeterminate or graphic notation, and all sorts of idiosyncrasies. It just requires a whole new range of skills, plus a willingness to do this extra work, usually unpaid.