Recently while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a blast from the past: it was a crude implement I had fashioned as a child by lashing together five ballpoint refills (with a lot of Araldite as well), to be able to draw five parallel lines to create musical staves on blank paper.
I used to enjoy just copying out music that I liked; I somehow felt ‘closer’ to the music by doing this. One could purchase music manuscript books at Pedro Fernandes, of course. But in my mind those books were for ‘serious’ stuff, to be used for music lessons, while my hand-made sheets were for fun.
I learnt a lot from the sheer act of copying and writing out music; I familiarized myself with clefs that were beyond the need of my instrument the violin. And when you copy out great music, you can’t help discovering what the composer does with his creation, both horizontally and vertically. I guess you can learn this by reading a score as well, but there’s something to be said for the physical act of putting pen to paper. It is like at least to a small extent, retracing the creative steps that the composer took in writing it him/herself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the term for a five-pointed implement like this to draw music staves is a rastrum. I’m reading a fascinating book by English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, titled ‘Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.’ It is extensively researched, and the all footnotes put together are perhaps just as long as the book itself.
The seventh chapter is titled ‘Bach at his Workbench.’ It describes in great detail how Johann Sebastian Bach actually wrote his music. The manuscript paper would be stacked on one of the shelves in his studio, ready for use; “heavier than ordinary writing paper and more expensive, since the sheets needed to stay upright and rigid on the music stands.”
Once he had conceptualized his composition in his mind, he would plan the layout of the manuscript page, and draw the necessary set of staves using a “special five-nibbed pen called a rastrum.” With repeated use, these rastra would “spread or distort”, and we find the resulting unevenness in some of his scores, leading to confusion regarding intended notation in some cases. For instance Gardiner informs us that in Bach’s fifth Brandenburg concerto, the outer, lowest prong of the rastrum was “virtually broken.” And not all rastra were created equal. Rastra of extra prominence could sometimes be given over to indicate the harpsichord part, for example.
What else would have been on Bach’s work-desk? “Quills, lead pencils, knives for sharpening pens and for correcting mistakes once the ink had dried and a straight ruler for inscribing long bar-lines in fair-copy scores.” And “inkpots filled with black, sepia and red tints and a supply of copper-gallic ink powder ready for mixing with water.”
Unfortunately, like other manuscripts of their time (do contemporaneous manuscripts in our own archives in Goa also have the same sort of ink and their set of problems?) the acid content of this ink caused it to bleed through the pages and in some cases cause severe damage.
Another point of interest: blotting paper had not yet been invented, so Bach would have had a box of fine sand to do this instead, although it didn’t always succeed in drying the ink before the page could be turned.
Gardiner describes three stages to Bach’s compositional process: inventio (the initial “germ or creative spark”), elaboratio (fleshing out of the idea), and executio (the performance of the work). All three stages are “complementary and vital” to each other.
With some composers, the work could gestate a long time in the first stage in a sketchpad, as with Beethoven. Many composers have not left these behind for posterity, and only fair copies of compositions survive. It is thought that Bach too might have worked from preliminary drafts which are either destroyed or lost.
Telltale evidence of the compositional process does sometimes does survive, however, and when it does, it can be illuminating. Bach in his Leipzig years was Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas church) there, and his duties included having to provide music for four churches under his jurisdiction, a phenomenal output that meant at least one cantata a week for the Sunday service. This meant he couldn’t afford the luxury of time or error. In the score for one of his cantatas (Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, BWV 135), he seems to be writing so furiously as the ideas come thick and fast. Manuscript paper isn’t cheap, so he can’t waste it to sketch his ideas before they disappear into the mist. He still has to wait for his current page to dry before continuing on to another page. So what does he do? He scribbles at the foot of the page a mnemonic, an aide-memoire of his idea, for what is to come. We get a rare glimpse of his elaboration as it happened.
And it is a myth to assume that Bach was a stereotypical ‘solitary artist’ in his studio, hard at work. He had two paid copyists, and often pupils and family members were pressed into service if there was a deadline. Today experts pore over these scores, and are (often, not always) able to tell from the ‘musical handwriting’ whether it was Bach’s own hand or someone else’s. Much can be deduced from errors as well (the inadvertent copying out of the wrong part in the wrong place, then struck out). When pressed for time, Bach takes over from the apprentice, and the sense of urgency is evident in the writing.
So much can be learned from examining the score. I was listening to a discussion on the radio about a study of Mozart’s score of his opera ‘La Clemenza di Tito’, written in the year of his death (1791). Based on the finding of an unfortunate insect that met its demise in one of the ‘inkier’ (a crotchet, perhaps?) notes in the score, experts are able to deduce in which month of that summer he wrote that portion, even if his window might have been open!
Today, there are all kinds of software that composers can use, and it has made the process of composition so much easier in terms of legibility, planning page turns, making copies, transposing parts, and so much else. The score for a whole symphony or opera can fit onto a pen-drive, or be emailed across the world in a twinkling of an eye. But I can’t help feeling we’ve lost something as well. When I arrange music for four-part harmony for my children or for our ensemble, I still prefer the old-fashioned pen-and-paper route.
(An edited version of this article was published on 12 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)