a professional mistakes-of-a-third fix

Early May 1992. I am sitting in a train to Skövde on my way to yet another rehearsal, a pile of photocopies on my lap, writing continuo figures. The scores, one hand-written, the other one in a quite legible computer transcription, represent two opera intermezzi – short comic operas played in the intermissions of opera performances, doubtless to the accompaniment of the crackling of 18th-century sandwich wrappings, various uncorking noises and a roar of private conversation. Unearthed and transcribed by a passionate musicologist who has made the finding of archived opera treasures his specialty, these works are planned for three weeks of staged summer performances in castle Läckö upon Lake Vänern.

It is just before the massive advent of cell phones, and we are in silent and moderate Sweden. Nevertheless the writing of continuo figures during a train journey is, in this particular case, waylaid by problems of various kinds. One of these has to do with sleepiness. Arvid Niklas von Höpken, the composer of one of the pieces, was an ambitious amateur and as such quite well versed. Typically for amateurs he was, however, largely oblivious of his true few moments of brilliancy, and so everything that ever came into his mind is present in the actual score. The plot clumps along like a clay giant inexpertly animated by clumsy magic. Höpkens’s journey through the unedited libretto resembles a gigantic modulation exercise. His recitatives meander freely through the keys, with no relationship to the mood of the action at all. Some of the arias, written in a style reminiscent of Handel or Roman, do in fact feature truly original beginnings. But there are so many of them! Their majority begins, proceeds and ends in the dullest fashion imaginable. I hasten to add that the performances eventually became a success with press and public, and that I might be a musical snob. Also, almost half of the recitatives and one third of the arias were eventually discarded, which greatly improved the final presentation.

The true complication during my score-completing train trip is, however, the transcription. No scholarly article is, or ought to be, published before being carefully proofread by several people. We embrace the blooper, the incomprehensible argument or the missed reference as part of human nature and gracefully accept any help we can get from our colleagues. In contrast, the typical baroque-project music-preparer, a solitary figure, apparently hopes for perfection to show up at his doorstep just by itself. Consequently, although I am supposed to actually lead the project and play the stuff, I am not shown the photocopies of the original scores, but only the transcription. Naturally: it ought to be perfect, it was transcribed by a specialist. Unfortunately the scores on my lap are riddled with mistakes of various kinds. Some, such as evident transcribing errors or unobserved errors from the original text, are so obvious that they can quickly be set right. Others need some working out – one must not only understand the composer’s mistake but also dismantle the transcribing specialist’s method for fixing it.

My favorite is a recurring method to fix the Terzverschreiber, the mistakes of a third, which may be the most common kind of mistake in quickly hand-written music of all styles. When the composer notated some bars of the melody, by mistake, a line too high or too low, the transcriber of my pile of intermezzi would in most cases elaborately rearrange the bass line to suit the corrupted melody, which he leaves uncorrected. This is, seen by itself, a very elegant administration. The melodic intention of the composer is to be honoured, so the continuo line gets adjusted accordingly. In a fashion, these manipulations mirror the spirit of a true historically informed playing situation, where the continuo has to serve and support the soloist. They mirror not, sadly, the psychology of music writing. A complete bass cadenza in a wrong key that accompanies a correct melody is the one error not likely to occur when writing a musical score.

I learned two things during those days: 1) how to keep a pile of photocopies on my lap in the train 2) to get hold of facsimiles whenever possible.


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