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Publishing at the Fading Fringes


Pendragon Press, publishers of choice monographs on musical subjects since 1977, will soon cease operations. Knockdown prices up to 70% off obtain on the remaining inventory. Details HERE. Orders must be made directly through the website, and will be fulfilled only up to July 8th, so act with dispatch lest you be disappointed.

Pendragon Press was established jointly by Barry Shelley Brook (1918-97), professor of music at Queens College of CUNY and founder of its graduate program in musicology; his wife Claire (1925-2012), vice-president and music editor at W. W. Norton; and her brother, Robert Kessler (1933-2021), a composer of musicals and songs; all of them shared editorial responsibilities for the growing list, and Bob served as day-to-day managing editor until his death last year at 87.

One can tell just from the narration of these diverse occupations that Pendragon existed as a cottage publication industry for active musicians, those with a moral as well as a professional commitment to scholarship, even after their retirement from their money jobs. I acted as series editor for Pendragon (I even got to name the series, “Dimension and Diversity,” for 20th-century music) since the 1980s, while I was still teaching, and saw publication of two books of my own; I continued to work on different titles by others right up to the end, including last-minute proofreading for the last one to come to its shelves, a biography of the pianist Gilbert Kalish. No, I never earned a cent either in editorial fees or salary, nor yet in royalties (which kick in only after 500 copies of a title sell), though I managed to pillage a few examples free or at cost, and I still have my souvenir Pendragon Press sweatshirt.

Pendragon’s richly varied list included many significant publications that will endure on music-library shelves for years to come. Millicent Hodson’s controversial Nijinsky’s Crime Against Grace (1996), which reconstructed the original choreography for The Rite of Spring against Robert Craft’s opposition, is once more out of stock; second-hand copies were fetching hundreds of dollars only a couple of years ago. Elliott W. Galkin’s A History of Orchestral Conducting in Theory and Practice (1988), a huge tome of 893 pages, and Max Rudolf / A Musical Life: Writings and Letters (2001), edited by Michael Stern, testify to Pendragon’s commitment to historical musicology and performance studies. My own shelves also cherish more specialized items, such as Martin Chusid’s Schubert’s Dances: For Family, Friends, & Posterity (Monographs in Musicology no. 16), and three from Pendragon’s “Harmonologia” series: Peter M. Landey’s comprehensive translation (2000) of Anton Reicha’s Traité de mélodie (1832), Lori Burns’s Bach’s Modal Chorales (1995); and Structure and Meaning in Tonal Music: Festschrift in Honor of Carl Schachter (2006); I remember an exciting celebration in New York when this latter was published, and Schachter and Murray Perahia together played Schubert’s Variations in A-flat Major for piano four hands, op. 35 (D 813).

Pendragon published my Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on His Music, 224 paperback pages, in 2004. I put it together rather in a hurry, but the National Endowment for the Humanities graciously featured it for a while on the homepage of its newsletter. It has never been reviewed anywhere as far as I know, but has been often cited in footnotes and bibliographies, and I am sure that major Debussy scholars still have it on their shelves. If some publisher would like to reprint it, I can help with that, at least to the extent of making corrections.

While I worked labor-of-love for Pendrago,n we concocted some other projects that might, with financial effort, have come off. My still-unpublished Melody and Musical Texture definitely constituted one of those. Another, which I mention somewhat coldfootedly, would have been the correspondence over several decades between George Perle and me, as he put together his superlative study of Berg’s operas (U. Of California Press, 2 vols.). Possibly Pendragon could have tackled the autobiography of the renowned Hugo Leichtentritt, one of the founders of the American Musicological Society, for which I provided translations and more than a thousand footnotes when the Harvard Musical Association published it in 2014 as A Musical Life in Two Worlds, but this 624-page doorstopper has sold less than a hundred copies so far.

When I first studied Walter Piston’s Harmony, second edition, it cost less than ten dollars; for the third edition (1962), out of which I taught for ten years, the price was slightly more than that; and in 1978, when I extensively rewrote and edited the fourth edition after Piston’s death, the price rose maybe to $12. Today the fifth edition (1987) lists for $99.99, paperback-only, on Amazon; I get 50% of the royalties, and the other 50% goes equally to the Boston Public Library and the Boston Symphony Orchestra., Many of us remember my mentor for both editions, the beloved Claire Brook, as the most able music editor W. W. Norton ever employed. In nominal retirement from Norton, as “executive editor” at Pendragon Press — with any small publisher, the function tends to be fungible — I don’t think she ever made a nickel. A couple of weeks from now, an esteemed publisher of valuable books on music will be no more.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Thank you for this, and especially for the reminiscence of the Carl Schachter event, both Schachter and Perahia are remembered treasures. Carl never considered himself a pianist, yet he played and conducted with great expression and clarity. His classes, lectures and writings, are remembered treasures, as are the great books from this small but significant publisher. I remember that publishing event and the people involved in it with fondness.

    Comment by Stephen Martorella — June 30, 2022 at 7:48 pm

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