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Transcripts of Dramatic Musical Works in Full Score

Project History

Oscar Sonneck
Oscar Sonneck, Music Division Chief. [1910]. Piano Magazine. Library of Congress Music Division.

To assure a more systematic development of the newly-reorganized Music Division’s collections, a new set of collection guidelines was established in 1902: opera immediately received a considerable share of attention because, “the peculiar condition of opera in the United States seemed to demand that a center of reference and research be created for the students of opera.” [Oscar Sonneck, Dramatic Music: Catalogue of Full Scores. Washington, DC: 1908, p. 3]. Accordingly, multiple “want lists” were compiled. When it was determined, however, that hundreds of operas included on the lists of desiderata were unprocurable in either manuscript or print versions, the option of contracting copyists to generate transcripts of the rare originals was explored. Music Division chief Oscar G. T. Sonneck (1873-1928) led efforts to identify the locations of institutions that held exact versions or editions of interest, and then to negotiate copying permissions, costs, and terms. Sonneck's work was bolstered by the full support and assistance of Herbert Putnam (1861-1955), then the Librarian of Congress, as well as counsel from Prof. Dr. Hermann Kretzschmar (1848-1924), one of the most distinguished German music historians of his time. It was the goal of these visionaries to organically “build up, as it were, a museum of operatic history. . . a comprehensive, representative collection of opera scores” held only in foreign libraries that would ultimately be made available to American music scholars and performers in their own country. [Oscar Sonneck, Catalogue of Opera Librettos. Washington, DC: 1914, p. 4-5]

Also crucial in this effort were European booksellers from Germany (Leo Liepmannssohn), France (Jean Terquem), Great Britain (B. F. Stevens and Brown), and the Italian publisher G. Ricordi who assisted the Library over the course of the project. These four agents assumed responsibility for hiring the best professional copyists available, among them Vienna’s William Kupfer, primary amanuensis to Johannes Brahms in the 1880s; on occasion, they also served as collaborators in researching the locations for some of the most elusive musical scores.

Sonneck’s reliance upon the advice and expertise of opera historian and collector Albert Schatz (1839-1910) of Rostock, Germany should not be underestimated: Schatz’s encyclopedic knowledge, his so-called “colossal chronological statistics of operas” as well as his unpublished dictionary of opera containing names of composers, authors, dates, and places of first performances were, according to Sonneck, “painstaking and valuable, indeed invaluable.” In the preface to his libretto catalog, Sonneck distinguishes Schatz’s research as the most current and comprehensive:

. . . I felt methodically justified in accepting without question his data instead of those of his predecessors, because Mr. Schatz had worked his way through practically all the available standard dictionaries, catalogues, bibliographies, etc., of his time, such as those by Groppo, Allacci, Wotquenne, Wiel, Piovano, von Wielen, Parke, Baker, Grove, Partaict, Clément and Larousse, Fétis, Goedicke, Riemann, Salvioli, and possibly Eitner, besides many biographies and purely historical works. [Oscar Sonneck, Catalogue of Opera Librettos. Washington, DC: 1914, p. 11]

Multiple obstacles surfaced throughout the project resulting in long delays and procedural modifications, prompting the need for enhanced social networking and diplomatic savvy; in some instances, some obstacles proved unsolvable. World War I brought the project to a standstill for several years and added pressure to already strained working relationships. Correspondence sent from Florence, Italy documents prolonged post-war-related setbacks:

I cannot send you the copyists [sic] rates, because it is difficult to find, in the present conditions, able persons making transcripts of ancient music at the cost of a photographic reproduction. As I have already observed, nobody would be responsible for its faithfulness and correction. [G. Biagi to H. Putnam: Florence, 2nd September 1921]

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. [Photograph of Herbert Putnam]. circa 1900. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Further disruptions arose when individual libraries elected to withhold permission for the Library of Congress to reproduce their treasures. For instance, according to Sonneck, verbal permission to transcribe materials held at the Conservatoire National in Paris had been graciously granted by Mr. Gabriel Fauré; however, the Library’s official written request initially met with opposition after finding its way “… into the hands of Mr. Weckerlin, the musical librarian who is proverbially opposed to granting the permission” [Sonneck to Putnam, 16th April 1907]. Perhaps most exasperating was our inability to successfully negotiate copying terms with most Italian repositories, considering the unique treasures they held. In a memo to Putnam, Sonneck expressed his frustration in this matter:

Certain [Italian] libraries . . .have not granted us the permission to transcribe the scores. This experience we have in common with European libraries and individual scholars…. A voyage to Naples is comparatively practicable for Europeans, but very much less so for Americans, who are further under the necessity of relying for such historical music on the Library of Congress, and on the Library of Congress alone. I have therefore sometimes thought that an exception to the rule might reasonably be granted to our Library for reason of exceptional conditions which are not paralleled by conditions in Europe. [O. Sonneck to H. Putnam: 16th January 1911]

From time to time, there were quality control issues. Sonneck meticulously proofread all newly-accessioned transcripts upon arrival; all sub-standard scores (e.g., a transcript of Antonio Cesti’s Il Tito (ca 1672) held in Brussels) were promptly returned to the agent for replacement or revision.

The differences between our score and the libretto of 1666 are such that I am anxious to know whether or not the copyist has followed the original score closely and whether or not all the music for the texts mentioned does not appear in the Brussels score. While I’m at it, I want to say that the transcription of the Italian text is incorrect and I suggest that the copyist should in the future compare what he writes with the texts in the librettos. [Oscar Sonneck to the Order Division: 18th February 1910]

Copying instructions drafted by Sonneck in 1907 were communicated to all transcribers in advance of their work and comprise the following guidelines:

  • Use the best ruled folio music paper.
  • Use not the whole page, if only a few lines are needed.
  • To be very careful in placing the text under or above the music.
  • In case of autograph or printed copies to mark in the transcript in brackets (f.i. [27]) the exact place where a new page begins.
  • To put notes missing in the original but so obvious that the expert transcribers can supply them in [ ].
  • To draw attention in footnotes to doubtful notes.
  • Always leave one system above the basso continuo free for possible future realization of the basso.
  • Use the old clefs where they appear.
  • Sign his name in full with date and place (and name of Library) at end of transcript.

Copyists were to use diplomatic transcriptions for the title page, without imitation of the typography or ornamental matter; crests or similar matter were merely to be mentioned in brackets. All preliminary matter such as prefaces, dedications, interlocution, etc. was to be transcribed literally but without imitation of typography or initials. Finally, all transcripts needed to be copied in modern notation.

The outpouring of appreciation by American performers and scholars for the library’s opera transcript project was pervasive. New York Times writer Richard Aldrich summarized our efforts in his column titled “General News and Notes of the Music World,” expressing his support for the Music Division’s forward-looking enterprise:

. . . the library is carrying out a plan of copying many rare and often unique manuscripts in European libraries, the purchase of which is, of course, forever impossible. In this way the collection will ultimately acquire, for instance, a vast number of old operas, many of which are unpublished and exist only in manuscript. It will therefore become the most important centre in the world for the study of the history of the opera…. The copies obtained by the Library of Congress, while only copies, and therefore possessing none of the preciousness of original and contemporary manuscripts, should be, if properly made, in every essential way hardly less important and valuable for the student of the subject than the originals themselves.

. . . The time is not far distant, if indeed for some it has not already come, when for certain branches of study it will be more advantageous, cheaper, and more convenient for European students and investigators to cross the ocean and do their work in Washington in the Library of Congress than to stay in Europe. [New York Times, 28th December 1913, p. X8]

One century and two World Wars later, Aldrich’s panegyrics for the Library’s transcript project assume a new level of significance as 21st-century music scholars periodically inform us about the loss or destruction of an original manuscript that we had copied a century ago; in these cases, it is the transcription held at the Library of Congress that assumes the status of ‘unica.’