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Music Librarians - a specialised kind of craftsmanship


Arthur Butterworth


All of us who are involved in music-making depend in various ways on the skills involved in looking after the printed music we need to practise our art of performing. There are several branches of music librarianship, some of them perhaps not given much thought to by musicians in general. Let’s consider some of them separately:

It is taken for granted that the greater part of the music we use in study or performance is nowadays printed by some means or other. This was not always so; for in earlier days probably most copies of music were hand-written. While music printing has been in use for several centuries, it might surprise many to know that until very recent times and the almost universal use of computerised music printing, a very large proportion of contemporary music - more especially orchestral parts (‘band’ parts as they are colloquially known) only existed in hand-written copies. It might surprise the casual reader to know that some otherwise very familiar music, often heard in public or broadcast performances, - Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Holst, Britten Rachmaninov, and many other composers’ works even now are still only available for hire in hand-written manuscript copies, and are not for sale. Sometimes only one set of parts was in existence, so that the copyright owner - the composer himself or his publisher - would regard these single sets of parts as very precious. There must often have been anxiety when such a single set of parts was loaned out. Would it travel safely? Would it be damaged or defaced by the user? Lost altogether? This sometimes happened in war-time when a single set of parts might, perhaps reluctantly, have to be sent overseas. With the present world-wide use of photocopying machines, this is no longer a worry; for a new set of parts can be made available within a few minutes.

Publishers generally have their own "house style" of printing and are reluctant to depart from it. Some of these have a long and admired history, such as: Breitkopf & Härtel, Lengnick, or Peters Edition, in Germany; Novello & Co, Boosey & Hawkes, in Britain while in France: Durand et Cie, Leduc and others. Every country has its leading music publishers. They all differ in style, so that it is almost a matter of being able to tell at a glance the country of origin, national styles are so much in evidence.

Well-known as many of these house-styles are, some are more admired than others; it generally depends on the legibility and general appearance of the printed musical symbols, on the lettering, and indeed on the size and quality of the paper used; for some paper is so flimsy as to wear out after repeated use (a notorious fault of much French printed music).

Orchestral players have ever been faced with an enormous number of different styles of printing: some good; but often bad. Sometimes so small as to be almost illegible or feint on the printed page; sometimes the paper itself so dark - grey or yellow instead of clear white. Light music, the kind once heard at the seaside by the local pier orchestra, was poorly printed: Viennese waltzes, marches, ’novelty numbers’ as they were once known, and similar ephemera. Even the classics were not invariably decently printed. One orchestra I played with had - at the time and still in use - sets of parts of Beethoven symphonies which dated back a century or more, and which were so fragile as to need most careful handling by the player. Such parts often had pencilled markings by previous players: emendations by conductors of former times; sometimes so altered and then subsequently erased so that the original thinly-printed note could hardly be deciphered (for instance the brass parts of the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto).

Furthermore, it would seem that earlier publishers hardly ever bothered to put in ‘rehearsal letters’; and never unique bar-numbers - which are now universal. How did one, for instance, efficiently rehearse - with the inevitable stops and starts - a work such as the Schumann Piano Concerto which had perhaps no more than three reference markings in the whole of the last movement; and this a moto perpetuo which is difficult to identify the place where the rehearsal stop has been made when one is in the middle of counting around 130 or so bars’ rest. However, it gradually dawned on publishers (and obviously composers too) that putting frequent rehearsal markers in the score and parts saved time and frustration at rehearsal. At first these were generally capital letters "A" then maybe twenty or thirty bars later "B", and probably another fifty bars further on a letter "C", and so on to the end of the movement. Even these were pretty useless. Then figures - usually every ten or twenty bars - like mile-posts by a railway track - regularly and arbitrarily spaced out, with no reference to the uniqueness of the musical phrasing - which would make identification of stopping and starting points more logical to those players who had to count dozens of bars’ rests. However, most of these problems have disappeared in recent times: the use of exact bar numbers has made rehearsing far more efficient and less time-wasting.

It is said that there is already some requirement in American orchestras that all new music must now be printed - manuscript copies are no longer acceptable; that it must conform to minimum requirements of type-face size, spacing, manageable turn-overs (right-hand pages must not require the player to have to turn over in the middle of a phrase), the printing must be so spaced out as to have adequate bars’ rest or time to turn the page. In this last respect it used to be a convention in hand-copying that the copyist would ensure that, even if it meant leaving half a page blank, was better than continuing the copied line right to the very foot of the page and then expecting the player - somehow - to manage to turn over without missing a note in doing so. Of course this was fine by the copyist who was paid by the page; so that the more pages he copied, the more he got paid for the job! In this latter respect it is worth noting that at one time it used to be said that if an orchestral part (notably viola parts) had so many uninterrupted notes in them that two full pages - a left hand and a right hand - were so full that no convenient rest occurred at the bottom of the right hand page; then the part was regarded as over-scored! Beethoven and Schumann could be said to be guilty of this on many occasions - just have a look at the 9th Symphony, or Schumann’s "Rhenish" to verify this.

A second - and really un-connected - aspect of librarian work concerns the handling of such material in public libraries and by orchestral librarians. In Germany there was at one time a difference between a Hochschule (practical music) and Universität (Musikwissenschaft - ‘Academic Music’) which we might do well to consider in some respects of librarianship nowadays. In many large town public libraries there is often a music department which hires out sets of orchestral scores and parts. These libraries are more often than not staffed by academically quite well-qualified young staff who have a good music degree, but who really know NOTHING at all about the practicalities of the "workshop" floor as we might call it: the rehearsal room or concert platform on the day of a performance by a big orchestra. Where does the problem lie? It resides in the fact that so many ‘smart young things’ with snazzy degrees in music are set the task of labelling orchestral parts in that ever-so-neat school-girl like hand-writing; so that the front brown paper cover (insisted upon by the senior librarian when the parts are first acquired by the library) is marked with infinitely small lettering (oh! so neat and tidy when laid out on the library counter) but which is so maddeningly un-readable when the orchestral librarian has to manage these copies when they eventually land up scattered on music-stands on a huge concert platform. Just imagine the scene: a rehearsal or concert is over, each music stand has - or should have - the correct copy on it, so that efficient collection by the librarian can take place as he moves his way between the ranks of empty chairs, music stands and the various risers between the wind, percussion and strings. Orchestral players are human, they don’t always leave their music in the right place, more often than not a few copies stray onto the floor and are left there for the orchestral librarian to collect up afterwards; confusion reigns, copies are mixed up - especially if the programme has contained several works. Trying to see from maybe a distance of thirty or forty feet away, the squidgy, tiny lettering that some ‘clever’ academically-trained librarian has so delicately marked: "V2" instead of clearly marking in BIG letters VIOLIN 2 or "cor ang" instead of COR ANGLAIS is maddening for the very practical orchestral librarian.

While it is all very well and good that librarians should have academic knowledge of the music they handle in the quiet reading rooms of large public libraries, studious places indeed the tasks of the orchestral librarian are hardly at all connected with academicism. It is an essentially practical skill, not learned in university seminars and tutorials but "on the shop floor" - the platform of the concert hall. It is a skill born of long experience of having been a player: a user of the parts put before him, not the student studying the history of the composer and his times: the difference in fact, between the two kinds of musical study: Hochschule and Universität.

Music, like so many other vocations has become confused: academicism is now rife in everything; often at the expense of more useful vocational skills which only come with actually doing the job rather than studying it theoretically.

Arthur Butterworth

March 2008


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