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Documentary Musicology — Working with Manuscripts


Mark DeVoto ca 1990

What do musicologists do during the Lockdown? Well, some of them write memoirs. A friend of mine, a composer, told me that whenever he talked with strangers in northern Minnesota and mentioned that he was a musician by profession, they would say to him, “You’re a musician? I wonder if you could tell me what to do for my sore throat?” My friend thus learned that in Fargo-Moorhead, “musician” means “singer.” Around New England, when people ask me what is my profession, I say “music professor,” although now retired. Sometimes I say “musician.” “What kind of musician?” “Professor of music.” “Oh.”

But because of my know-it-all personality, which often radiates smartass, I’ve been called “professor” ever since I was ten. Within my own trade I am known as a musicologist, supposedly a specialist in Musikwissenschaft, musical science. There are various kinds of musicologists. I’ve been a member of the American Musicological Society since 1964, when the society was essentially an academic society for historical musicologists. My graduate training included historical musicology, music theory, and composition, all areas in which I taught at the college level for 36 years. I claim to be principally an analytical musicologist, in an area which sometimes dips into music theory and history of musical style. Another area in which I have worked extensively is documentary musicology, in which I have had little training but a lot of experience, and this is what I want to discuss today.

In 1955, at age 15, I spent a summer taking piano lessons with an excellent teacher, Gregory Tucker, a well-known pianist in the Boston area who taught at the Longy School and Bennington College, and later was a professor at MIT. I last saw him in 1962 when, recognizing me among those assembled for a memorial, he drafted me to turn pages for him in the concert that followed the ceremony. In 1983, when I was teaching at Tufts University, one of my colleagues asked me if I could help one of her friends, a piano teacher, in examining several large cartons of papers that she had been given by Tucker’s children, who after his death didn’t know what to do with them. I said I’d be happy to look over the papers. These included a batch of books and printed music but also a number of musical autographs.

I knew that Gregory Tucker had been a composer as well as a pianist, but I knew nothing of his music. Sorting through the papers, I could determine that he had composed at least two dozen works of various sizes, mostly short instrumental pieces and songs. I found several fragments of a larger work called The King and the Duke, apparently after Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but no complete score. There were many pages, over a hundred of various sizes ranging from full page down to scraps, on which ideas had been jotted down, just a few measures, or somewhat larger segments of several bars, but I couldn’t identify these. I put them all in an envelope which I marked “Unidentified and uncategorized.” Eventually I had enough of the papers sorted and arranged that I could make a descriptive catalogue for them, listing titles, instrumentation, number of pages, sometimes the size of the paper, and whether the manuscript was complete, or at least seemed to be complete. There were also items of antiquarian value, including printed scores of operas by Humperdinck and Pizzetti and signed by their composers, and a blueprint score of the Concertino for piano by Walter Piston, who had been my own teacher at Harvard; this score included corrections in pencil and ink in Piston’s own immaculate hand. Several years later I remembered this when I conducted the Tufts Orchestra in a performance of this same Concertino. I also found a printed score of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto from Robert Freeman’s personal library; I took the liberty of sending that back to Bob Freeman himself, then director of the Eastman School, and he replied that he was amused to see again the score that he forgot he had lent to Tucker 30 or more years previously. (I failed to find the copy of Charles Cooke’s amusing little book, Playing the Piano for Pleasure, that I had lent to Tucker in 1955.) Eventually my friends and I came to the realization that all the various manuscripts, representing compositions by Gregory Tucker that had apparently never been published, needed to have a permanent archival home. After due consultation, we decided to place them all at MIT, where they reside today, and where my typewritten catalogue of the manuscripts remains as what librarians call a “Finding Aid” for anyone who wanted to examine them. One item hasn’t turned up yet: a Sonata for organ that my organ teacher, Frank Taylor, told me that Tucker had promised him in 1956; and now Frank Taylor too is no longer around. What else might be missing?

Hugo Leichtentritt in the 1940s

And what else could have been done with these manuscripts? They could have been placed with a second-hand book dealer, as happened with several autographs by Hugo Leichtentritt (1874-1951) at the Harvard Book Store, where in 1955 I bought Leichtentritt’s Violin Sonata, a work which I had seen listed in a music dictionary, for a dollar. Later I went back to the store for other manuscripts by Leichtentritt, but they had been sold. Eventually I gave the Violin Sonata to Wayne Shirley at the Library of Congress, where it remains today. Many years later (2014) it fell to me to edit Leichtentritt’s long-neglected autobiography which Harvard Musical Association published as A Musical Life in Two Worlds. The German-emigre-musicologist had written it  in 1940 in response to Harvard’s challenge for first-person Holocaust remembrances. One may order a copy HERE.

Leichtentritt’s manuscripts could have been scattered to the four winds by posthumous sale at auction, as happened with Claude Debussy’s sizable estate; this dispersal has been an enormous hindrance — though also a stimulus — to Debussyan research that continues to this day. (At Stanford University I found the autograph of Debussy’s unpublished Noël pour célébrer Pierre Louÿs which is listed in the New Grove but not in François Lesure’s comprehensive catalogue of Debussy’s works; anyone who wants a copy of my transcription should let me know.)

Or those manuscripts could have been thrown in the trash. Such things have certainly happened. After Schubert’s death in 1828, a pile of some 500 manuscripts of his music were declared to be “waste paper” valued at a few pennies, but we can thank his older brother Ferdinand, also a composer, for keeping them intact. But in 1848 the second-act score of Schubert’s opera Claudine von Villa Bella, D 239, was used to light a fire. This does not necessarily remain a moral issue; we know that Brahms and Ravel preferred to destroy all their sketches rather than leave them for future generations to pick over and evaluate, and depending on the weather, this makes life both reassuring and frustrating to documentary scholars.

In 1992 my colleague and friend Philip Batstone, Ph. D. Princeton 1965, died. His fellow composer, Donald Sur, and I spoke with Phil’s two sons after the memorial. They thought that Phil’s manuscripts, including several sizable scores — orchestral and chamber works — should be donated to Princeton. Before that could happen, I said, it was absolutely essential that the manuscripts be sorted and catalogued; otherwise they would be tossed into a cupboard and forgotten, even in a university library. I volunteered for the job of cataloguing, and the descriptive list amounted to nearly twenty detailed pages. It turned out in the end that Princeton didn’t want the manuscripts. Bethany Beardslee, who had recorded Phil’s Mother Goose Primer for CRI, arranged for a number of the scores to be photocopied and the copies placed with a new music organization. The complete collection of manuscripts, with my finding aid, is now at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard, where Phil had taught for two years. He also left behind a number of reel-to-reel tapes of several performances accumulated over the years, along with some notes and recordings of his experiments in electronic music; these are now at the University of New Hampshire, where the late John Rogers found a place for them.

Donald Sur lived in the Boston area for many years after his M.F.A. at Princeton and a few years in his ancestral Korea, and was well known in the New Music scene locally. He survived on small commissions and part-time teaching jobs, supplementing these by working as a printer of music via the blueprint process; he kept the equipment in his Cambridge apartment and was regularly visited by local composers who brought him their manuscripts on transparencies. Donald had had several premieres by Collage New Music and a major commission from the Cantata Singers for Slavery Documents, a work for chorus and orchestra lasting half an hour, that was premiered in Symphony Hall. I went to see Donald in the hospital during his final days in 1999, and remembering what we had both planned for Phil Batstone, he asked me to take charge of his manuscripts. Donald’s son Matthew and I gathered all of these up from Donald’s apartment and others that he had stored with his mother, and we deposited them in the Archives at Tisch Library at Tufts University, where Matthew was an alumnus, and where I could work on them as needed. Compiling a precise listing of these manuscripts sometimes was difficult; a short Prelude for piano, for example, existed in nine undated versions in pencil that differed from each other by only a few notes. A chamber piece, Satori on Park Avenue, also had several versions with different endings. There were other problems with a larger score, a dramatic piece with projections called The Unicorn and the Lady, with text by Barry Spacks; rehearsals prior to recording were hampered by discrepancies between scores and parts. Some documentary issues were resolved when Donald’s Berceuse for violin and piano, his last composition, was examined for an authoritative reading; I used this for engraving with Sibelius software. Another work from his last years, a setting for chorus of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, was engraved by Jan Hamer. Like all of Donald’s music, this remains unpublished, but is descriptively catalogued and can be examined at the Tisch Library (though only fragmentary materials for Slavery Documents were found). I remembered that during the 1980s Donald had hoped that computer software for musical engraving would soon be developed; some graphic software, such as Score (which ran on a DOS platform) and Finale (Windows and Mac), was actually ready in the late 1990s. In 2009, Collage issued a CD containing eight of Donald’s works, and this is still available (Albany TROY1134); the recording wouldn’t have been possible if the manuscripts had not been kept in order.

See Part 2, about my work with Alban Berg’s manuscript HERE.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It is good to read Mark’s reflections on his work as a musicologist, beginning with his amusing anecdotes about letting strangers know that he’s a musician. Don’t you think the problem is often tied up in the verb “to play”? As in:

    “What do you do?”
    “I’m a musician; I play the viola.”
    “Yes, yes. But what do you do for a profession?”

    It is also always gratifying to see any mention of Donald Sur, perhaps the most vividly original person I’ve ever known. I remember going to his Cambridge apartment for the first time and being overwhelmed by floor-to-ceiling stacks of paperback books and magazines piled to create a precarious maze that eventually led back to his upright piano, where I saw, and heard him play and sing, the first two or three pages of what would become, over the course of the next six years, his “Slavery Documents.”

    Mark the musicologist will undoubtedly accept a small correction in his mention of this amazing work. The oratorio is forty minutes longer than Mark recalls, though I understand the slip—its seventy minutes have never felt long at all. Incidentally, Donald delighted in pointing out that the double bar at the end came with measure 1865, as if this significant number had been planned, not by him, but by the universe. Despite the full-evening length of “Slavery Documents,” Donald considered his oratorio on what he thought was America’s great foundational and unresolved issue unfinished; when he died, he had composed about three minutes of a second part that he imagined would more than double the length of the existing work.

    Also, Jan Hamer’s beautiful and welcome copy of Donald’s “Sonnet 97,” elusively poignant music for unaccompanied chorus, was based on several of the composer’s versions, the discrepancies mainly in their text underlay. About these I had sometimes argued with the composer—sometimes too successfully, I fear, for when Jan was copying the music into Sibelius, I could not always confidently recover what Donald’s original intentions had been.

    Comment by David Hoose — July 8, 2020 at 1:30 pm

  2. This is what musicology should be , it has to start at ground level. I have often as a performer of Donald Sur’s pieces, and knowing the creative disarray of the studio from which they emerged, been very grateful for the remarkable work in sorting through the various versions which lurk in most of Donald’s pieces , to find a text which we could still perform, and with parts that correspond.
    I wish the Sur editor all good fortune in finding the sole copy of Root which disappeared at D Ss memorial service, though the consolation is that it is probably in the hands of one of his female admirers who will always cherish it.
    Isn’t some of the most interesting musicology the finding of buried treasure, the lost trail, things like Batstone’s John St. , a strange piece that maybe only his friends know and appreciate, but if that is true, it lives. JH

    Comment by john harbison — July 8, 2020 at 8:42 pm

  3. The tales of manuscripts being tossed in the trash reminded me of the story I heard from a former minister at Boston’s Church of the Covenant, who had previously held a post at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York. That’s one of the places where Charles Ives was organist in his brief career as a working musician.* Since many of his larger works were based on anthems and other service music he created during his tenure, having those early pieces would have been extremely valuable to scholars, but, as the minister ruefully admitted, after the staff at Central ransacked its storage spaces, they realized that all that “stuff” got pitched after Ives had left the position. Who needed all that paper, right?

    * I use the term here in its sense of “performer.” When, as a composer, I ask performers if they consider composers musicians, they usually respond with words to the effect of “no, composers are tormenters of musicians.”

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 9, 2020 at 9:51 am

  4. Phil Batstone’s John St., a work for solo piano lasting maybe fifteen minutes, is surely a strange piece, but one of rare beauty, too. I know of just two performances anywhere, the premiere in England by Steve Pruslin (to whom it is dedicated), and one by the late Louise Rogers at the University of New Hampshire, which I heard. When Phil’s manuscripts went to Harvard, the only copy of John St. among them appeared to be uncorrected; Phil’s own handwritten note on this copy indicates that corrections were to be entered later. But Greg Biss had a copy that did appear to contain corrections, including one extra measure; I used this copy when I set it up with Sibelius software, and Greg proofread it. A bound copy is now in the Harvard stacks; and I can send a .pdf to any who want to see it. It’s a difficult work but one that certainly deserves more performances.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — July 9, 2020 at 1:28 pm

  5. A wonderful essay by Mark DeVoto, and it is clear that he, and others of his ilk (though he is very nearly unique in many respects) are unsung heros for the work they do. That kind of cataloguing and detective work is tedious but so very necessary.

    As for the truly unique and brilliant Donald Sur whom I got to know when I was Director of Longy, one of the many things that surprised and informed me was his utter enthusiasm for the concertos of Vivaldi which he considered to me among the most inventive and under appreciated bodies of music.

    Comment by Victor Rosenbaum — July 13, 2020 at 7:40 pm

  6. Victor’s memory of Donald Sur’s loving Vivaldi is spot-on. When I told him that I didn’t really care for Vivaldi, he asked, “Oh, David, how many of the concertos have you listened to?”
    “I don’t know, maybe a dozen.”
    “Oh, gee, you can’t appreciate Vivaldi until you’ve listened to at least 100 of them, if possible, in one sitting.” And though he said it with that gleam in his eye, he wasn’t really joking.

    Comment by David Hoose — July 21, 2020 at 5:46 pm

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