The Ink's Still Wet: How Composers Keep Score

Observing as Gerard Schwarz rehearses "Amelia" for Seattle Opera. (Photo by Rozarii Lynch)

Lukas Foss told me once (by way of justifying his reorchestrating of parts of Beethoven’s Eroica prior to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra rehearsal he was conducting) that, as far as he was concerned, “we should always treat music as though the ink’s still wet.” Fascinating as the resulting performance was (it certainly had an electric spontaneity to it), Lukas was asking for an awful lot; his days as music director there were numbered.

As a composer, I was apalled when, twenty years ago, I showed up at the first “orchestral read” of a revival of one of my operas at a regional opera company, looked at the parts on the stands, and realized that the conductor had gone through them and—with great care—changed all my dynamics. I caused a fuss with the chap, who explained that he had limited rehearsal time, and that he was simply doing what he had to to make sure that my orchestrations worked with him on the podium—a variation on the old musician trope "play the clarinet you have in your hands, not the one you see in the store window." In other words, I learned over the years, it was I who was shocked to find gambling going on at Rick's. Twenty years later, settled in my seat in the theater to observe a wandelprobe of a revival of another of my operas, I wondered, throughout the first act, why I couldn’t hear the low piccolo doublings of the violins (a useful commercial pit orchestrator trick that subtly firms up the pitch and plumps the tone of a small section of strings) and the very high, Britten-esque passages for two piccolos (they make orchestral climaxes for a small orchestra sound a lot bigger). When the musicians took a break, I walked down to the rail and leaned over and asked the venerable maestro engaged for the revival quietly, “Where are my flutes?” He shot a look at the flutes, both of whom were swabbing out their instruments and all at once attentive. “There was a lot of low piccolo that can’t be heard, and a lot of very high piccolo that sounded shrill, so I had them play everything on the flute in the correct octave,” he replied. “Ah,” I said, “I understand. Thank you.” I made quick eye contact with the flutes as I turned away. One nodded almost imperceptibly. Subsequently, they played their parts exactly as written. I’m proud of that moment, because it is the way I believe a mature professional composer should behave.

Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I agree—when it comes to my own music, at least—with Lukas. I now look to Verdi and Puccini, who laboriously crafted new iterations of their operas for each major production, adding and subtracting arias, changing tessituræ, crafting—in the Italian fashion—roles specifically to the artists who would sing them. When I worked as a proofreader and copyist on Broadway I witnessed firsthand as songs were added and excised from scores by the shows’ creative teams at lightning speed. After all, the American music theater would be a lot poorer today if Stephen Sondheim hadn’t retreated to a hotel room in Boston during out of town tryouts for A Little Night Music and come up with Send in the Clowns.

Astonishing it was, back in the early 80s, to sit next to David Del Tredici in the shed at Tanglewood as the orchestra rehearsed one of his magnificent, sprawling Alice-inspired orchestral works, and to see (in green pen for Solti and Chicago; blue pen for Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, red pen for Slatkin and St. Louis, and so forth) his small, though trenchant revisions as each score was run through its paces by a different set of players. Even more astonishing it was as a student in Philadelphia to examine Leopold Stokowski’s copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and to see, in one color, his own orchestrational changes for performance in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and Stravinsky’s own, in another color, for another performance.

Nevertheless, when it comes to concert music—symphonies, string quartets, and so forth—there’s still a strong feeling amongst most composers that “the document”—that thing labored over in private for months and years by the solitary composer in her studio—is sacred, and that changes are made only with the greatest trepidation. Even I, as hard as I’ve worked to cure myself of this attitude, find it hard to revise my symphonic works. Orchestral rehearsal time is incredibly expensive—especially nowadays, when a twenty-minute long composition can receive thirty minutes’ worth of rehearsal before the first performance. When a player stops the rehearsal to ask a question, it costs money. Moreover, although the composer has (in principle, at least) all the authority AND the power when her music hits the music stands, every question diminishes her authority. The players cease trusting the dots and dashes on the page. They begin second-guessing things. The result is as inevitable as it is chaotic.

Consequently, the full scores of serious concert and operatic works attain an almost tombstone-like stolidity, crafted as they have been to withstand bad performances and facilitate great ones. I’ve conducted Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony with a community orchestra that struggled with it, and a regional orchestra for whom it represented no serious technical challenge. The transcendent glory (and I mean glory!) of its execution is that it came off with both.

What does a composer do, after the inspiration and composing is over, to protect her vision and to furnish to the players the most durable road map she can—one that, like Copland’s Third, will make a bad orchestra sing and a great orchestra burst into flames? I was asked this the other day by one of my adult pupils whose opera was being premiered at long last by a major company and wanted to know if I had a “work routine” I could share with him so that he wasn’t at the mercy of the generosity of the company’s orchestra librarians and musicians once his music hit the stands. I was surprised to admit that I didn’t have one. Sure, I had in my files “work routines” for use back when I was a proofreader during the 90s, but nothing more current that considered engraving software and contemporary practices. So, I jotted these thoughts about “ten passes” through the score for him, and share them now with you. They are by no means comprehensive, but they represent a starting point, and making yourself go through the score ten times to check for these things will make life better for everyone, including the audience.

Full scores of some of my operas.

ONE

First I go through the vocal parts and recheck the hyphenation of every word with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, I go through again and check the punctuation. Singers and vocal coaches look to punctuation for an indication not just of what the words are trying to express, but where they can breathe. Finally, I check the prosody. In short, I set text for sense first, then, for sensibility. I avoid putting unaccented syllables on downbeats, since that isn’t the way people speak in real life. Well, William Shatner does, but he’s the magnificent exception.

TWO

I go through and check all the key changes if it is a tonal work. Engraving software tends to leave vestigial bits of code around double bars that confuse not just the midi triggers hidden in your score file, but they mess up the spacing. This leads to a pass through to double check the layout of the score pages. Most software defaults to putting too many bars on each system of music so that, when you must squeeze extra music in to facilitate a page turn you can. I deduct a measure each page to give more space to the music.

THREE

Then I pass through the clarinet part to see if I can’t make the keys easier by having the player switch to an instrument with a different transposition, like D or E-flat. I then do this for the trumpets. Finally, I’ll change heavily sharp keys to flat ones for the brass. Happy players perform better.

FOUR

Then I go through and recheck all the slurs in the winds and brass. Slurs in the winds refer only to where the player should breathe, not to the shape of the phrase. Then I check all the bowings (yes, I do my own bowings) in the string parts. Again, bowings are NOT phrase marks. If there’s something tricky, I’ll pick up a violin and try it slowly; I’ll physicalize it so that my authority is actual, not hypothetical.

You're perfect, now change: the score to one of my operas.

FIVE

I pass through the entire orchestra to recheck articulations. Each composer develops her own personal glossary of what each accent means. I lean on Benjamin Britten (whose articulations are the best of anyone’s—they always sound without special explanation, even out in the audience) and Richard Strauss, both of whom spent a lot of time on the podium and were taught a lot by players about what they needed to see in order to give the composer what she wanted.

SIX

I then conduct through the score one more time, checking to make sure that the time signatures I’ve chosen match the beat patterns that the conductor will likely choose to keep things together most efficiently. Sure, they’ll choose their own patterns, but, as with bowings, one wants to establish a basis for a mutually-respectful dialogue.

SEVEN

I then check the “dove tails” in the score. These are the points when players “hand off” tunes to one another—whether from solo to solo or from one choir to another. These are frequently a little tattered. A seamless orchestral sound is something attained only through attention to this detail. One never gets any credit for having done it, but one can tell when a composer hasn’t. (Remember, craft is only really satisfying when it is good enough to conceal itself.)

EIGHT

I then go through and check the dynamics. I remind myself that the players have been trained since childhood to balance with one another. Second-guessing their training leads to the same chaos that a conductor “following” rather than “leading” the orchestra does. It’s like a sonic hall of mirrors, and it leads to disaster. If you want the winds to balance as a choir, just give them all the same dynamic and score it accordingly. Nothing else is needed. If you want the different sections of the orchestra to balance, look at the repertoire and you’ll see that they are marked the same dynamic; the composer’s choice of suitable ranges is what ensures the balance, along with the players’ training. Fine-tuning with all sorts of dynamics within the chord leads to stressed-out players and weird sounding tuttis.

NINE

After running through the percussion parts to make sure that I’ve given the players enough time to run from one instrument to another, I check the rising chromatic lines to make sure they are spelled in sharps, and the falling chromatic ones in flats. This is particularly important when the music is based on an octatonic (or any artificial) scale. The players see only one part in front of them. All those augmented seconds make sense intellectually when you see them in the full score, but they make a single line player's life harder. That said, a famous composer once asked me “Why do your chords ring and mine don’t?” I was compelled to answer that it was because I spelled mine correctly. After all, an A sharp is higher in pitch than a B-flat, and so forth. The other composer was not amused.

Kelly Kuo rehearses "A Woman in Morocco" at the Butler Opera Center as I observe, flanked by the production's vocal coach Kathy Kelly.

TEN

Finally, I go through and make certain that all the rests are “collapsed” into sensible groups. Double bars exist only as a reminder to the player to “look up” for information from the podium. Composers who’ve mainly played chamber music always divide up the beats too much in their orchestra pieces. Players need to see only where the stick is probably going to be in their peripheral vision—nothing else. Then, if I’m using Sibelius software, I’ll go through and “reset note spacing” to get rid of more digital kudzu, and then “lock score” and “freeze position” so that all my work isn’t lost.

AND THEN...

I’d say that, if you do all that, then you’ve found about ten percent of what is likely to go wrong in rehearsal. Throw your hands up in the air and begin again, friend Sisyphus. The ink's still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

Two

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

Three

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

Four

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

Five

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

“Okay, baby,” he’d begin. “Try this.” He would “put over” a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, “Or you could have used this from before, like this.” He’d play a few bars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” he’d think out loud. I’d improvise a different line reading. “No, no, you can’t do that!” he would laugh, “Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?” He’d noodle a few bars. “No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.” (Laughter.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s 'Maria'. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Six

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.

It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.