Friday 17 August 2007

True to the score

If you read Ethel Smyth’s autobiography she has some very amusing things to say about the trials of a young composer dealing with copyists, translators etc. In early 20th century Europe a composer was still dependent on manually copying to create vocal scores and orchestral parts, and without these there could be no performance.

It is easy, in our photocopy and desktop printer world to forget that it is not so long ago that composers where highly dependent on manual copying. And for a large scale work, this copying could be a significant overhead.

When Bach died, his manuscripts were divided. When it came to the St. Matthew Passion, one son got the score and another son got the parts so that each had enough information to perform the work. There was no question of having a second copy of the score made; it was probably just too expensive.

Bach was a great re-user of music, re-cycling works or movements in other forms. One of the more interesting areas for musicologists and instrumentalists is the attempted re-creation of his early instrumental concertos. Some of these are only know in their re-used form, as cantata movements or as transcriptions for harpsichord concertos. In at least one case, the original instrumental parts were used to accompany the new harpsichord solo part.

The reason why the originals of these concertos have disappeared is probably that once Bach had re-used the concerto and had no use for the original, there was never much impetus to ensure that the original score/parts did not disintegrate or to replace them if damaged.

Often, of course, we only know works from early copies, the original score having disappeared. This can mean that works get mis-assigned or simply overlooked and forgotten. Scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries has done much work re-assigning misattributed works. Also, a number of manuscripts which have got overlooked have turned up. Such as the Handel Gloria, unattributed in the score, it has been attributed to Handel on the basis of the vocal style. Another striking example is the recently discovered Striggio mass, premiered at the Proms this summer. This survives in a presentation score send to the French King, but mis-filed in the Royal Archives. It took much detective work for the work to come to light again.

Buxtehude wrote a series of oratorios for his evening concerts at his church in Lübeck. These concerts and the works performed were highly influential, but no complete scores have survived. We have a number of surviving librettos, plus the score of one oratorio which Ton Koopman confidently attributes to Buxtehude. But the format of the work does not quite correspond to what we would expect from one of Buxtehude’s oratorios, leaving us to wonder what might have happened to the structure of the work between the original score and the copy that we have.

Sometimes things do turn up, and with the opening of libraries in Eastern Europe, the possibility of more scores appearing is appealing. But we must remember that much has been lost in the wars which have ignited Europe over the last 200 years.

Part of the problem is that, if a work was popular then the score could be used to destruction. Purcell’s theatre works suffered from this problem. As the composer died young, he did not have time to make archive copies of his works; and might not have wished to even if he had lived. So the scores were used, almost to destruction in the theatre.

The score of The Fairy Queen is so unproblematical because it was lost quite early on. Only to be re-discovered in the late 19th century, thus allowing us to be relatively confident that what we hear is what Purcell intended. But with Dido and Aeneas our only musical source, is a score for the work which has been dismembered and each act forms a musical interlude in each act of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. To us, a rather bizarre treatment of a masterpiece; luckily we have early librettos of the work so we know that what we are missing is probably not large. Though it would be fascinating to know what form Purcell’s prologue took.

A composer like Handel was pretty obsessive about keeping his scores, for which we must be grateful. He was also lucky in that his musical executors and heirs took some care of his scores (both the originals and conducting scores) so that a large part of his output is readily available in libraries. Handel was also eminent enough and sufficiently in the public eye that collectors tended to have his music copied so we have a number of early copies of his music.

Handel, of course, also published his music, some of it supervised by himself, but much of it in pirate editions. One way of assessing how close the pirate edition is to the composer is to check how far the publication is from the autograph score. It is evident that some of the ‘pirate’ editions, though not officially sanctioned, were based on scores which had originated either from the composer or from his circle. But this was because Handel was surrounded by the admiring group of aristocrats, who supported and collected his music.

This is something that did not seem to happen to Bach, his scores seem to have been restricted to his family. If his circumstances in Leipzig had been a little different then we might have had an interesting selection of very early copies of Bach’s major works to compare to the surviving manuscripts. Or perhaps selections from the oratorios arranged for chamber performance.

In the case of their contemporary, Telemann, we have lost a great deal. A composer who was positively profligate in his writing, Telemann’s output of cantatas, passions and passion oratorios baffles by its sheer size. Inevitably much has been lost as scores and parts reached the end of their life and no-one bothered to copy them out again.

It is sheer popularity which contributes to the loss of the score to Monteverdi’s opera Arianna. It was never published and we can imagine the original score gradually disintegrating with use. It is possible that an aristocratic collection somewhere has a copy of the score, after all its popularity makes this a possibility. But I’m not holding my breath.

The sheer fragility of works written on paper means that it is truly amazing that so much has survived; what with war, fire and incendiary religious upheavals, it is heartbreaking to thing of what has been lost but heartening to learn of remarkable survivals.

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