Igor’s Hand


It’s the spacing that causes one’s jaw to drop.

Early this week, by chance I noticed a posting on Twitter that contained an image from the first page of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Granted, the calligraphy is top-notch for handwritten manuscript (not surprising considering the meticulous nature of the composer) and the subtle eccentricities—the time signatures written as fractions, the use of colored pencils for rehearsal numbers, the distinctive cursive style—are fascinating. But it’s the spacing—the horizontal and vertical distribution of notes on each staff—that provides a real and tangible insight as to the intense attention to detail that Stravinsky brought to bear as he penned the autograph manuscript of his score to Le Sacre.

So where did this page come from? After some digging I discovered that this May, in celebration of the centenary of the premiere of Le Sacre, Boosey & Hawkes will be publishing an annotated edition of this original autograph manuscript of the piece as well as the autograph manuscript of Stravinsky’s two-piano arrangement and a set of 18 essays by Stravinsky scholars. (B&H is currently selling pre-orders at a reduced price on their website.)

From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, it’s easy to wonder why a handwritten autograph of such a work is of any interest, especially since there are plenty of engraved versions of the score that are much clearer and cleaner. But ignoring pragmatism for a second, the manuscript is important for several reasons. As I mentioned above, a trained eye can elicit many clues from a composer’s handwritten score. Not only can the manuscript allow one to understand the character of the composer to a greater degree than any engraved score, but performers and conductors can use this type of score as a tool when making their own creative decisions regarding interpretation during performance.

My own thoughts behind the importance of this manuscript are much more personal. It’s certainly a cliché to say that Le Sacre was an influence—most composers and performers who have any interest in new music today were affected in one way or another by this seminal work, either through recordings, a live performance, or (laugh if you will) Disney’s unique visual interpretation of a highly edited version of the work as part of the classic film Fantasia. I saw that film when I was four years old and made sure to see it every time it was re-released into theaters (which, back in the ’70s, was the only way one could see the film again!). I can safely say that if there was an early event that sparked my interest in music, it was experiencing that film at such a young age.

Memories from my childhood aside, there is one more important aspect to these manuscripts that I think may be the most important of all. As with celebrities or famous individuals, its very easy for most of us to abstract certain famous musical works so that they become transcendent in our eyes—it’s not just a piece of music anymore, but more of a cultural icon with its own baggage. When one looks at the actual handwriting of a 31-year-old Russian composer who had not yet achieved his place in the mythos of our musical heritage, it not only allows us to see the piece and the man writing it in a more normal, grounded manner but it allows us to see ourselves and our own work in a context that is ultimately more healthy and realistic than before.

6 thoughts on “Igor’s Hand

  1. Mark N. Grant

    Hi Rob, the 4-hand version is for one piano, not two. Stravinsky himself and Debussy (no mean pianist) famously rehearsed the score from the composer’s 4-hand one-piano manuscript.

    There are several transcriptions of the score for one piano two hands. The most faithful to the orchestral score in detail, and virtuosic, that I’ve seen is the version by Vladimir Leyetchkiss, which Schirmer publishes (or used to).

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      Other composers may have used color pencils at times, but it was only Stravinsky who systematically used multiple color inks in his autograph scores to delineate different musical elements, particularly in short scores. I saw several of these short scores in an exhibition of composer holographs at New York’s J. P. Morgan library not too many years ago, all on loan from the Paul Sacher collection, if memory serves.

      An excellent eyewitness account of Stravinsky’s studio and all his inks and other score-preparation paraphernalia can be found in the lamentably forgotten composer Nicolas Nabokov’s book “Old Friends and New Music.”

      Reply
        1. Mark N. Grant

          Very interesting, thanks for posting this. However, the Sibley librarian notes that “the basic rendering of the music is black ink on the paper” which Debussy then embellished in colored ink. In Stravinsky’s short scores, each staff is notated in a different colored ink– red, green, etc. It may be that other composers did this, too, I don’t know. Percy Grainger sometimes hand-notated what he called “blind eye” versions of his orchestral and band scores for conductors with enlarged notes and rhythms in different colors.

          Reply

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