Sonneck’s Obsession and Putnam’s Pursuit: Commissioning Transcripts of Opera in Full Score

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.

Figure 1:  A leaf from the final movement of the Sonata for violin and piano,  K. 379 in G Major composed  by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791),  revealing the use of multiple inks, superimpositions, cancellations, etc.  This  example stands in sharp contrast to Mozart’s usual pristine musical hand.    Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

Figure 1: A leaf from the final movement of the Sonata for violin and piano, K. 379 in G Major composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791),revealing the use of multiple inks, superimpositions, cancellations, etc. This example stands in sharp contrast to Mozart’s usual pristine musical hand. Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

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 individual’s  “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 composer’s 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 Congress’s 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 Division’s 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 project’s 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.

Figure 2:  In one response from a library in Bologna Sonneck is informed that  “The regulation of our Library forbids the transcription and the reproduction of  ancient and rare manuscripts and books….”   Perhaps to tone down the rejection, they offered to provide photographs of  “one or two pages and the frontispiece…” Music Division Old Correspondence Collection

Figure 2: In one response from a library in Bologna Sonneck is informed that
“The regulation of our Library forbids the transcription and the reproduction of
ancient and rare manuscripts and books….” Perhaps to tone down the rejection,
they offered to provide photographs of “one or two pages and the frontispiece…”
Music Division Old Correspondence Collection

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.  That’s 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 project’s 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).

Sonneck’s 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!

Copyists were instructed to sign their names in full at the end of the opera, and to include the date of completion and name of the holding library.  To the left is part of the title page from Antonio Salieri’s opera  Axur, Re d’Ormus performed in 1788.

Figure 3: Copyists were instructed to sign their names in full at the end of the opera, and to include the date of completion and name of the holding library. The figure above is part of the title page from Antonio Salieri’s opera Axur, Re d’Ormus performed in 1788.

The signature of William Kupfer, primary amanuensis to Johannes Brahms in the 1880s and copyist of the manuscript located at the Hofbibliothek zu Wien in 1910.

Figure 4: The signature of William Kupfer, primary amanuensis to Johannes Brahms in the 1880s and copyist of the manuscript located at the Hofbibliothek zu Wien in 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 you’re 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.”

5 Comments

  1. Sharon M.
    June 4, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Such intrigue! Drama, secrets, war, painstaking labor, hard detective work and satisfying results. All the elements of a great opera! Thanks for this wonderful post.

  2. Bill Hollin
    June 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    I now know what I am going to do for a day or two this summer!

  3. Gm mind.
    June 5, 2014 at 5:36 am

    Being an active musician I’m being inspired by this post.I sincerely appreciate it.Thanks a lot for this info.I’d like to share this post.

  4. Sten Odenwald
    June 5, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    This is an amazing blog! What a wonderful resource for our national library to have, especially given that some of the originals are no longer available or have been destroyed. The Arts are finally learning what we scientists have known for a century. Nothing insures the permanence of our great intellectual treasures better than having multiple copies stashed in as many far-flung places as possible. Given the unrest in our world, having copies of works of art may be the only way to preserve them for the distant future 1000-years hence. It pays to think in terms of the long term! We stash our knowledge not only on Earth..but among spacecraft orbiting the distant planets. For example, the Voyager spacecraft, which have now left our solar system, carry engraved records with music and human voices that will out live us by millions of years. Perhaps the Library of Congress should team up with NASA for some truly deep-storage!

  5. Eileen R. (Eileen Rattner)
    June 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Oh my . . . such a wonderful story! The foresight and determination of Sonneck and Putnam have definitely brought forth a treasure for the library and all of us. Thank you for your insightful reseach into this unique collection acquisition.

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