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Learning from Music Manuscripts

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A class from Mannes examines music manuscriptsA class from Mannes examines music manuscriptsIt can be a special experience when students make contact with primary resources. I have written previously about a class visit to examine documents from the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. A few weeks ago I had the great opportunity to introduce students to a fundamental primary resource: music manuscripts. My colleague Fred Fehleisen (of Mannes College the New School for Music) brought his class to the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to provide students with first-hand experience of looking at and handling actual music manuscripts.

As this was not the first time Fred brought a class to the library, I could have easily repeated what I had presented on previous occasions. But we have such a wealth of material it seems wrong not to give each class a different and unique experience. When I select different items to show, my preparation helps me to learn more about them and observe and understand how students interact with them.

I assume that students expect to see some of our treasured holographs (a manuscript written in the hand of the author or composer is known as a holograph). Nevertheless I try to ensure that students learn there are other kinds of manuscripts. So I challenge them with copyists' manuscripts—that is, manuscripts in which the writer is not the author of the musical content. At first glance, one may think that copyists' manuscripts are substantially less important than holographs. But copyists' manuscripts often supplement our knowledge about the dissemination of music. They are 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 search for answers to such questions is always instructive. In this way I am able to get students to recognize the existence of and value of copyists' manuscripts.

Page from a 17th century manuscript collection of dance musicPage from a 17th century manuscript collection of dance musicCopyists' manuscripts are also great for learning how to observe and study watermarks. A watermark is an imprint created in the papermaking process—a form of logo. (Current forms of paper money from numerous countries—including the U.S.—have watermarks embedded within them as an anti-counterfeit measure; you can view them by holding any denomination up to the light.) For researchers watermarks can have valuable purposes, such as a means to date paper, and as a way to understand the structure of a manuscript. In the world of paleography, and even within musicology, the study of watermarks has become an established and specialized field of study through which scholars are able to derive much information about not just the papermaking process but about the people who subsequently used the paper.

Most watermarks are invisible in regular light but can be revealed when a light shines through the paper. Although we have professionally-made watermark readers (intended for separate leaves of paper), I prefer to use ordinary flashlights to hunt for and view watermarks.

With the aid of a flashlight, the class views watermarksWith the aid of a flashlight, the class views watermarksThe exploration of watermarks and search for other evidence made an examination of a seventeenth century dance compilation all the more interesting.Vellum bindingVellum bindingNot only was the vellum binding impressive, but finding the watermark felt like a major achievement.The watermarkThe watermarkI showed the students an example of eighteenth century lute tablature. There was a guitar player among them who could talk about the issues in adapting old notation to modern and how one adapts the music to currently available instruments.Lute notation from the Harrach CollectionLute notation from the Harrach CollectionA student talks about lute tablatureA student talks about lute tablatureOne of the topics I briefly explored was how some twentieth century composers appeared to have a heightened sensitivity to visual expression. Though not musical works, I brought out several manuscripts by the music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). (The students were well acquainted with Schenker and his analytical method: Mannes was the first school to teach Schenkerian Analysis in the United States, and maintains that tradition to this very day.) Unlike his published work, his analytical sketches dramatize numerous trial efforts and offer a unique visualization of his unique analytical method.Heinrich Schenker's analytical sketch for Brahms Rhapsodie op. 79, no. 1 in B minorHeinrich Schenker's analytical sketch for Brahms Rhapsodie op. 79, no. 1 in B minorI showed the students a page of orchestral sketches for Déserts by Edgard Varèse, followed by a portion of the notation for the work's accompanying electronic tape. The students were fascinated by the work and particularly by the non-traditional notation.Edgard Varèse's sketches for DésertsEdgard Varèse's sketches for DésertsI couldn't help showing an example from the published edition John Cage's Cartridge Music and compared it to one of his sketches. Although many might think this period of Cage's compositional output is simplistic, the students were surprised and impressed at a small portion of the prodigious calculations Cage made to achieve the final form of the composition.A portion of John Cage's sketches for Cartridge Music (1960)A portion of John Cage's sketches for Cartridge Music (1960)Saving the best for last, I then showed the class some of our treasured holdings.A sketch by Franz Liszt for his “Herr bewahret die Seelen seiner Heiligen” (1875)A sketch by Franz Liszt for his “Herr bewahret die Seelen seiner Heiligen” (1875)A sketch by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky for the Nutcracker (1892)A sketch by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky for the Nutcracker (1892)And to top it off, a sketch by Beethoven of his string quartet, Op. 18, no. 2, last movement.A sketch by Beethoven of his string quartet, Op. 18, no. 2, last movementA sketch by Beethoven of his string quartet, Op. 18, no. 2, last movementThough many people think that digital availability of manuscripts will remove the need to see them in person, I think I proved to the students that to examine manuscripts, you still need to come to the library. I'm not only happy and gratified that the students left in state of amazement and wonder, but that some of them have returned to the library to continue what I hope will be their life-long learning.

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Music manuscripts

Dear Bob, I have found your post very interesting. What a great opportunity indeed for the students to be introduced to the wonderful collection of music manuscripts of the New York Public Library! Let me ask you a question about your text: wouldn't be more appropriate to use the word "autograph" talking about "manuscript written in the hand of the author or composer"? Even according to the wikipedia entry you linked to, an holograph "is a document written entirely in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears". Not every single music manuscript is signed by its author, is it? With best regards.

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