I am inspired by my new piano. Only an upright, it is nevertheless big, shiny, brand new and beautiful to play. Should you ever need to put pep into your piano playing, I urge you to buy a good new instrument. It has me addicted; I can't leave the thing alone.
One outcome of this revived enthusiasm is to revisit those dusty bundles of music that have lain disregarded in the loft for decades. Now they provide a source of diverse discoveries and multitudinous mysterious mysteries.
Some of the music was already old when I acquired it half a century ago. There is a 19th -century edition of Bach's 48, by CF Peters of Leipzig ('Kritische Ausgabe, von Franz Kroll'). Undated, printed on good-quality paper in beautiful music type, it came privately bound in red mock-leather covers, with a gold blocked title. Each prelude and fugue bears a pencilled date, with comments added by its former owner. The fascination lies in the handwritten additions.
The dates plot a complete course at the Royal Academy of Music (always referred to as 'RAM'): 'Lent Term 1919', 'Summer Term 1920', and so on. Written in what we would now call old people's writing, spiders and loopy with curly serifs on the capitals, these are the practice jottings of a teenage student born around the turn of the 20th century. There is no indication of the writer's identity, only the initials - W.E.W. - also embossed in gold leaf on the cover, together with a title that spells fugues as 'fuges'. Maybe I shouldn't despair over the spelling of today's undergraduates?
W.E.W. was clearly keen to label the components of the fugues, noting 'stretto', 'codetta', 'augmentation' or 'second subject' where appropriate. There are also performance reminders. 'Head Still', 'Fingers!', or 'Don't Rush', at appropriate points. W.E.W. was loyal to Bach. The dates on the pieces run on until the late 1930s.
Every so often I wonder about W.E.W. Who was s/he? Did the RAM course come after war service? What was it like to be a music student in London more than 80 years ago? Who was W.E.W.'s teacher? Where did all this dedication to keyboard mastery lead?
Added comments have impact, as every graffiti artist knows. Marginalia in books and music possess particular potency. When they are not intriguing, as in my copy of the '48', they are often annoying. In orchestral music, the previous orchestra's bowing marks are fine, and often helpful, until the conductor says, 'I'd like to try something different. Then, string players hope that the old markings are written in soft pencil, and that they will be easy to erase. Thus one of the most repeated instructions heard during my days playing in the theatre pit was: 'Make markings in pencil gentlemen, please.'
In the theatre, the band parts that came around with weekly variety had to be seen to be believed. On most Sunday afternoons we faced a torn, foxed and faded mess of cues, corrections, instructions, deletions and afterthoughts on those parts. Rude comments about the quality of the act were also sometimes jotted on the music. Most welcome was the information concerning the amount of free time before the orchestra resumed playing after onstage 'business', written in so that a quick trip to the pub could be planned!
One mark that we frequently added to band parts, a cartoon pair of spectacles meaning 'watch out' (usually for a tricky page turn), has now been incorporated into modern music-writing software. Sibelius automatically add a pair of specs at the bottom of the page, whether you want it or not.
Additions can be historically important and helpful to scholars. Pencilled annotations to baroque copies suggest that more ornaments were played than printed, giving priceless insight into early performance practice. What future scholars will make of notes indicating that there are six minutes before the next cue, enough time for a glass of refreshment, I can't imagine.
Some additions are puzzling. Recently I played the clarinet in Firebird. The part had the fingerings pencilled in. I wonder, how can one reach the level of playing Firebird and still need to have the fingerings? Other markings are of the moment, and surprisingly thoughtless. The Hungarian pianist Ilona Kabos (1893-1973), wife of Louis Kentner, taught in London during the early 1960s. Her students included John Ogdon. Though clearly a great teacher, nowadays Kabos seems to be remembered as much for the way she scribbled on the music during her lessons. 'Bold directions in red crayon, right across the page, in huge letters, gratuitous slashes,' recalls one of her former students. Teachers with similar habits have been know to add remarks such as 'clumsy' or 'poor' in giant letters.
Some notes on old scores are nothing less than subversive. The orchestral scores of Arturo Toscanini were kept by his family for 30 years after his death. When eventually available for scrutiny, many were revealed to be littered with Toscanini's own red pencil marks that underline the essence of the music. His copy of Elgar's Enigma Variations is covered with alterations. In Beethoven's eighth symphony, Toscanini expanded the timpani and brass parts in the opening movement. Perversely, in the finale of the ninth he reduced them. In La Mer, Toscanini rewrote two pages of the piece and pasted it into the score in place of Debussy's original. These were in green ink. If he were alive today, perhaps a luminous highlighter pen would be his marker of choice.