The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Susan Clermont.
For nearly a millennium composers or their copyists wrote out musical scores and individual instrumental and vocal parts by hand, using a pencil or calligraphy pen, vellum or paper, and a ruler. This practice only recently began to change in the 1990s with the advent of computer software programs such as Finale or Sibelius that serve as the music notation equivalents of a word processor. Either method of encoding musical content onto a page requires an advanced understanding of musical notation, music theory and meticulous attention to detail and contemporary conventions; either method yields a functional final product.
It is interesting to observe, however, that when musicians visit the Music Division and view examples of our treasures, they always prefer to spend more time with manuscript scores analyzing, scrutinizing, speculating how and why an individuals musical hand executed the elements preserved on the page. They examine alterations notes, measures and phrases that appear to be scratched-out or erased, superimposed or pasted over, changes in handwriting, different pencils, inks, paper types, watermarks, any divergences in the musical text, marginalia, provenance markings, matters of neatness, messiness, etc. All of these variables become factors ripe for discussion that often provoke scholars and performers to seek a deeper understanding of the musical work through the primary source, the artifact itself even before considering the actual musical content.
Given that a composers holograph manuscript (a document written in the hand of the composer) generally offers the most tantalizing glimpse into his or her creative process, one might infer that copyists’ manuscripts are substantially less important than holographs. Think again! As Bob Kosovsky (NYPL for the Performing Arts/ Music Division) points out, besides supplementing our knowledge about the dissemination of music, copyists manuscripts are also historical artifacts: each copy poses a set of questions as to the identity or context of the copyist, the purposes for why the copy came into existence, and if there are any divergences in the musical text.
The Library of Congresss Music Division holds in its collections literally thousands of copyist manuscripts created over hundreds of years. Among those manuscripts are a unique subset that have always fascinated me – about 700 in number – that were specifically commissioned by the division beginning in 1903, just a few years after its establishment. In a newly launched online bibliography appearing on the Music Divisions website titled TRANSCRIPTS OF DRAMATIC MUSICAL WORKS IN FULL SCORE AT THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, I have attempted to document the untold story of these transcriptions a story that involves one of our earliest and most successful international endeavors as an official division at the Library. This bibliography began as a simple reckoning of the transcript projects parameters and compiling a comprehensive listing of its extent: as my research progressed, however, I realized that how the project was accomplished actually offered an exceptional view into the breadth of knowledge, determination, and impeccable attention to detail that each member of the transcript team possessed a century ago.
In 1902, when collection development guidelines and subject areas of emphasis in the division were still in their infancy, opera received considerable and immediate attention because, as wrote then-Music Division chief Oscar Sonneck, the peculiar condition of opera in the United States seemed to demand that a center of reference and research be created for the students of opera. He began by drafting want lists, comprising thousands of operas in full score; but, so many important works on those lists were extremely rare or never published and only available in a single manuscript source that we had no hope of ever locating copies available for purchase. Thats when Sonneck and fellow opera aficionado and then-Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam proceeded to Plan B: explore the option of contracting copyists to make transcriptions of the unprocurable items. Within months, they had methodically outlined the parameters of this undertaking:
1: Research which European cities and libraries held the opera scores of interest to us (hard);
2: Agree on the costs and terms of copying with the scribes and their European agents (harder);
3: Negotiate copying permissions with close to forty libraries/institutions in eight countries (hardest).
All of their best laid plans could not have prevented the series of obstacles that surfaced throughout the projects tenure. Some of these snags were settled through savvy negotiation, or as Sonneck put it, diplomatic blasts; others were simply beyond resolution. For example, several Italian libraries emphatically refused to grant our copyists access to their treasures resulting in obvious disappointment (considering the significance of early Italian opera) and frustration (see Figure 2).
Sonnecks meticulous proof-reading of each completed score sometimes uncovered unacceptable quality control issues that resulted in materials being returned for re-copying; and then there was a World War that broke out in the middle of the project that created substantial delays!
Nonetheless, more than three decades and close to 700 transcripts later, the project ended and these copyist manuscripts assumed their place in our stacks filed among more than 8000 additional operas in full score (not to mention over 20,000 opera libretti, over 18,000 piano-vocal scores of complete operas, close to 1700 volumes of operatic excerpts, etc.)! Today, one century and two World Wars later, we occasionally learn from a researcher about the destruction of one of the original scores we copied so long ago and realize that our manuscript has assumed a new, unique status.
As early as 1913 New York Times columnist Richard Aldrich hailed the opera transcript project a great success and predicted that our library would one day
become the most important centre in the world for the study of the history of the opera . The copies obtained by the Library of Congress, while only copies, and therefore possessing none of the preciousness of original and contemporary manuscripts, should be, if properly made, in every essential way hardly less important and valuable for the student of the subject than the originals themselves.
His panegyric to the Music Division proved to be a worthy hyperbole.
If youre planning to do some serious opera research or are just hunting for your favorite aria, do browse this new bibliography, or come into our Reading Room and let your darker side give in to the power of the music of the night.