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Speaking Scores: What’s It Like To Be Songs Without Words?


In the Speaking Scores series, we interview inanimate musical scores to get a perspective on what it’s like to be a revered piece of musical notation.

Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help hearing your conversation with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It really made me want to chat to you. Because Twinkle is often talking about how, as a handwritten manuscript, it can almost sense the composer sitting over it with a quill, carefully penning the bars and notes. That’s lovely, isn’t it? I’ve actually always had a similar feeling, though it’s not something people often associate with me, a humble negative of a musical score – of Songs Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn, to be exact.

What do people think of me? Well, generally, they think “metal”, first. I guess it’s quite unusual to encounter a steel plate negative. Then they’ll probably think “mechanical”, then ponder the idea that musical scores are physically produced, and I’m just a rigid piece of the manufacturing process. Where people look at Twinkle and think charming, quaint, authentic and real, people look at me and think industrial, clean, efficient, and mass produced.

But here’s my perspective: I don’t feel the composer in me, but I do feel my engraver. He was a man named Hans Kühner. He was the typesetter for this Urtext edition published by G Henle, and in his work is its own craft. The Henle publications have always been known for their clarity and sense of space. And in me, I have these visions of Mr Kühner, meticulously configuring the engraving, setting these arpeggios, chords and phrase lines that Mendelssohn composed. Twinkle may disagree, but I feel just as much love, care and labour in my creation as in its.

Sadly, since the late 1990s, companies no longer use hand-engraved plates for printing musical notation. Mr Kühner was one of the world’s last music engravers. Today, “engraving” means having it done by computers.

Here’s one thing, interestingly, that I find people don’t see in me: music. Because I’m a negative, there’s something strange about how I look to most people. Not only am I metallic, but I’m also backwards, a mirror-image of my printed version. So even to musicians, I’m filled with unintelligible nonsense. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing – maybe there’s something more visually artistic in me. Shapes. Lines. Movement. Rhythm. Mystery.

And a sense of excitement, the idea that, through me, thousands, maybe millions, of people will one day play Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words because of me. I think that’s all a humble negative of a musical score can really ask for.

Notating Beauty that Moves – Music at an Exhibition
3-29 March 2018

See the programme page for more details.
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