The Day after Christmas Day, Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day, the Day of the Wren. Wherever you are, and whatever event you may yourself celebrate on 26 December each year, I personally always try to spare a thought for the discarded and dispossessed. I’m thinking, for a change, not of the unfortunate condition of swathes of humanity, but of all those bits of glitzy wrapping-paper used in the Christmas gift-giving production line, unceremoniously ripped to shreds by children eager to get to their annual booty, or carefully put to one side for re-use by those who aren’t yet paid-up members of the throwaway society. Often more attractive, and possibly more expensive than what they contain, that sliver of the wood-pulping industry reminded me of our artsy equivalent: music manuscript paper.
Today’s level of technology threatens to make it a redundant commodity. Computer software programmes such as Sibelius and Finale can churn out finished compositions, picture-perfect and printed in a trice on paper you can buy from the supermarket. Not that you even need paper; I’ve seen a number of performances with an iPad propped up on the music stand; I expect you have, too.
Yet the humble manuscript paper’s role as a beast of burden, dutifully carrying a composer’s inspiration on its shoulders, suddenly assumes a greater respect when it goes missing, silted up in the most unlikely of places—often involving cardboard boxes and charity shops—and then handled with kid gloves and hailed like the Prodigal Son when it eventually turns up again. And this happens more often than you might think, sending modest shivers of pleasure through pockets of the arts community whenever it does.
The music of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů is a case in point. Prolific in output, it’s unsurprising that many of his works keep turning up, unperformed, unknown or lost, but saved from oblivion on the life raft of manuscript paper. Naxos had a well-intentioned project to record Martinů’s complete piano works, which it dutifully concluded, only to have to re-open the exercise when those life rafts started sailing into town with a flotilla of fresh material. Here’s the opening of one of those discoveries—No. 5 of his 6 Polkas (8.572175), written in the midst of World War I, not that you’d guess it from its chirpy character.
From World War II comes the story of endangered works by the Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg (1893-1944). Before losing his life in the Holocaust, he had the foresight to entrust his manuscripts to a family friend. He in turn passed them on to his son, who was to eventually establish himself as a cancer specialist in the city of Buffalo in the United States. He related the story of the manuscripts’ epic journey a few years ago to JoAnn Falletta, conductor of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, who brought them off the paper through live performances and several Naxos recordings. Who deserves the greater accolade: Ms Falletta, the Naxos sound engineers, or the unknown printer of Tyberg’s manuscript paper that survived a half century in transatlantic transit? You can decide for yourself while listening here to the opening of his Symphony No. 2 (8.572822).
Sometimes, the discovery or preservation of original manuscripts of works that were published in their time reveal clues as to the composer’s real intentions over performance details; they also throw up casualties of human error in terms of copyists’ wrong notes, and the like. Naxos has been working with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, its publishing house and the conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky to produce critical editions of the symphonies of Heitor Villa-Lobos that remain as faithful as possible to the composer’s concept. Last month, Naxos also released a recording of orchestral works by Paul Dukas (8.573296), for which the conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud consulted original manuscripts to achieve optimum results, as he explains here:
“The composer Paul Dukas was a perfectionist for whom no detail was too small. He revised and modified many of his orchestrations, even after publication. To this day, there is no definitive edition of his orchestral works, and while preparing for this recording we noticed how much the existing editions diverge from one another on numerous key points of orchestration, tempo and even harmony. So as to produce a reading that reflected the composer’s original intentions as closely as possible, we went back to the available manuscript sources. On this Naxos recording, therefore, we hope to give rigorously faithful performances of these long-matured and meticulously sculpted scores.”
Here’s a sample of the fruits of his labours, from L’apprenti sorcier.
Finally, a bit of audience participation. I’m the proud, but concerned owner of a copperplate original manuscript by a former English cathedral organist and composer, Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995). In 1979 he wrote an anthem titled They that go down to the sea in ships (8.554823). It’s frequently performed and not infrequently recorded. Where to find a suitable home for that manuscript before I hit my own final bar-lines? Maybe you can think of a suggestion, other than one involving cardboard boxes and a charity shop, while listening to the opening of the piece.