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The Parts We Play

0 Karen Schnackenberg
music Editor's Abstract

The future technology that will affect orchestral scores and parts is a topic that encourages lots of speculation for all of us in the orchestral world. In order to begin an examination of the possibilities, Karen Schnackenberg presents a concise yet detailed account of the current world of printed music and describes the five categories most often used: public domain, copyrighted, Pops charts, commissions, and self-published works.

Ann Drinan

There has been a great deal of interest in, and speculation about, the future presentation of orchestral scores and parts. Will players still read from paper, a PDF-like file on a screen, or some other medium as yet unimagined? Publishers and librarians have long engaged in lively discussion about how we will get there – to this “future” – whatever it may be. One thing is certain: we are already well into a period of transition unprecedented in musical history. Technological advances have revolutionized how music is written, published and distributed. What used to be a standardized process is now anything but, and the resulting chaos, while offering new opportunities and possibilities for creativity, can cause composers, publishers, orchestra librarians, conductors and players real headaches.

To envision where we may need to go with “printed” music, it’s important to understand where we are today. Although it’s impossible to categorize exactly, for the purposes of simplicity in this discussion we can generally group the printed music from which orchestras currently play into five categories: Public Domain Repertoire, Copyrighted Repertoire, Pops Charts, Commissions, and Self-Published Works. There are, of course, all kinds of exceptions to and overlapping of these categories, but this breakdown can be useful for a basic overview.

Public Domain Repertoire

Public domain (PD) repertoire, what we think of as the “standard” orchestral literature, is largely readily available for purchase or rent. While much of this music may only be published by a reprint house such as Kalmus (Edwin F. Kalmus, Inc.) or Luck’s (Luck’s Music Library), many standard works in the public domain have numerous editions, such as the symphonies and concerti of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. Some are considered “critical” editions, due to their source being original manuscripts or early fair copies of the composition. Leading publishing houses such as Breitkopf & Härtel, Bärenreiter, and G. Henle sometimes even vie for the bragging rights on certain works as the most scholarly edition. For example, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 has been edited by each of those respected publishers within recent years.

Music in the public domain – that which is no longer protected by copyright – is usually the easiest for the librarian to control in terms of quality, accuracy and legibility. This is due to a number of factors: the scores and parts can be obtained quickly (for the most part); are generally published utilizing traditional standards of engraving; can be purchased well in advance of a performance and thoroughly prepared; lists of errata are available for most standard orchestral works so that sets can be corrected, saving rehearsal time and frustration; players required to learn this repertoire for auditions can purchase individual parts; full scores are available for purchase; and, since much of the music is out of copyright and, therefore, older, the issues are more well known. The practical result is that players often know what to expect with a certain piece (right down to where specific passages lie on the page or where traditional errors appear), can get their music earlier to practice and, these days, may even be able to download a copy of their part from the internet. For conductors, rehearsal time doesn’t have to be wasted in correcting errors, and for managers, costs can be reasonably contained. Also, once a set is purchased, corrected, and marked by an orchestra, that preparation doesn’t have to be repeated wholesale each time the music is performed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that public domain repertoire is always without major problems. The Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 parts and score, for example, have thousands of errors from the original plates that are still reprinted. Correcting the set easily can take weeks or months, but must be done. A librarian putting this set out uncorrected does so at his/her peril!

Copyrighted Music

Copyrighted music is repertoire protected by copyright that is available mostly by rental, but occasionally available for purchase if allowed by the composer or his/her estate. When it is rental, parts are acquired by contacting the publisher or agent that represents that composer in a particular country, and paying a fee usually based on the duration of the work, the number of performances, and the budget size of the orchestra. For example, the rental works of Bernstein and Copland are available in the US only through the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.; the works of Corigliano can only be acquired from G. Schirmer. Sometimes, a composer or his/her estate will allow their music still under copyright to be purchased – as John Williams does for his “Signature Series” works derived from popular movies such as Star War, E.T., or Schindler’s List.

The practical limitations of rental music are not always understood by players and managers. Parts are generally sent to an orchestra six weeks to a month prior to the first performance, thereby drastically reducing the amount of time the librarian(s) has to prepare them. (Orchestras can request parts to be sent earlier, but an additional rental fee is then usually charged; many organizations cannot afford the extra fees.) As a result, the parts tend to be made available to the players later than PD works already in the library and marked, and this creates a difficulty since many rental works are contemporary compositions and present different technical issues than classical works. Also, if the organization has not made its programming decisions in a timely manner, the entire process is truncated and becomes very stressful for everyone. If you want to see a librarian melt-down, change a program at the last minute and add an unfamiliar rental work.

Another problem with rental works is quality control. Sets that have been performed hundreds of times by other orchestras often have to be cleaned, repaired and re-marked by an orchestra’s librarian just to be presentable to the players. And even after hours of erasing and fixing they may still barely pass muster. Then there is the issue of transferring an orchestra’s preferred markings into a rental set marked completely differently. A major work can take an hour or more per string part – multiply that by 30 or 40 and you can do the math on the time just one set takes.

An added confusion about copyrighted music is that earlier versions of the work may exist and be available for purchase while the critical edition can only be rented. Mahler, for example, made many revisions to his works during his lifetime, and most conductors prefer to use the revised or critical versions. These cannot be purchased, and rental fees for a 60 minute symphony can be quite high. But if you look in a catalogue of public domain music, you will find Mahler symphonies for purchase – the original versions. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but beware. The critical edition score of Mahler Symphony No. 5, to name only one, does not match the original edition parts. Not having this worked out in advance with the conductor is guaranteed to cause a rehearsal disaster. The same situation can hold true with works by Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Stravinksy, and other composers.

Pops Charts

Pops charts, for the purposes of our discussion here, are the music performed for concerts outside the standard “serious” repertoire, and not available through the usual process from a publisher, either for rent or purchase. Of course, much of the music composed for movies is serious music – works of Korngold are one example. And, popular music that has become light classical in the genre are often included in such performances. There are many small publishers who specialize in pops arrangements and the quality runs the gamut. But those works are readily available and more often subject to the same quality control measures previously explained. At the moment, with the term “pops,” I am referring to parts that are either supplied by a guest artist in the form of “charts” or orchestral parts from shows, individual pops arrangers, and the like.

Librarians have very little control over pops charts. If the guest artist’s music trunk rolls in with the bus on the day of rehearsal, as very often happens, basically the only thing the librarian can do is put the folders on the stands and give the players a show order. There is no time to go through each folder to make sure everything is there, or mark bowings, or fix page turns, or clean up heavily-marked parts. This situation requires flexibility and patience from the players, along with their sight-reading skills.

Most of the major acts understand their responsibility to bring legible charts already organized into folders, and that someone has checked to be complete. But, newer artists who may not have performed with orchestras much often don’t understand what is required, and send tunes packaged individually, string parts without bowings, charts with unclear cuts or starting points, parts too small to read, flimsy paper taped badly – you name it and it happens. I have, on numerous occasions, spoken to the artists’ conductor or manager, or even the artist themselves, about what is expected when they travel to perform with an orchestra. Sometimes they even take the advice and when they come back a few years later, have made a clear improvement. But, the problems remain in the pops arena, and despite librarians’ best efforts, impact the players adversely.

There are some producers of self-contained pops shows who have gone to great lengths to create a bound book for each instrument that has been well-marked, and is relatively stand-ready. These books are often sent far enough in advance that the librarians and players have the time to do what they need on the music. But, sadly, there are even more situations in which this does not happen – the music comes late and is badly marked, has poor page turns, or is largely illegible. Again, librarians do what they can in the time they have, but the results are often less than satisfactory for the players.


Commissions represent a body of work that is new and generally premiered by the orchestra commissioning the composer for that work. Back in the old days, commissioning agreements rarely included any language concerning the physical parts – traditional engraving standards were the norm, at least so far as size of image and paper, number of staves on a page, and the like. (That doesn’t mean everything was legible – far from it. Hand copied parts ranged from beautifully professional and aesthetically appealing to horrible scribble.) But as music copying has moved from the domain of the hand copyist into computer software, lines have become blurred between composer, copyist and publisher. I’ve learned from hard experience to include language in the commissioning agreements that requires parts be created under certain specifications, and wise is the composer who hires the professional copyist to do this work.

Every orchestral player and conductor who has performed newly-commissioned works understands the frustration of reading parts that have not been proofread for errors. It’s a given that composers will want to make changes in their music early on, but that’s different than parts being full of mistakes the first time an orchestra rehearses the work. Proofreading new works is the responsibility of the composer, not the orchestra librarian, and should happen before the parts are rehearsed for the first time. If a composer expects a librarian to proofread their work, they should be prepared to hire the librarian at the prevailing rate, many months before the first rehearsal.

One other issue with commissions is receipt of materials in a reasonable amount of time prior to rehearsals. Although commissioning agreements regularly include deadlines for the completion of the composition, the creative process does not always work on schedule! New music can be extremely complex technically, and, of course, is unfamiliar to the player. Getting the parts early is crucial. When they are late, it is very difficult for everyone.

Self-Published Works

Self-published works by aspiring composers, new composers, young composers, experienced composers – or pretty much anyone with music engraving software – is one of the largest growing segments of printed music today. And, it is also one of the most problematic. As with some commissioned works, many composers try to save the money that would have traditionally been spent hiring a copyist and create the parts themselves. If someone is very skilled in using music software, and incorporates professional standards of engraving, then the parts can be quite good. But, at the risk of stepping on some composer’s toes, many of them are trying to do the copying with little expertise and it shows. There are extraordinary music copyists who have made the transition to digital part production, and have learned to manipulate the software to achieve professional results. Unless a composer really wants to spend the time necessary to become a professional copyist, I would encourage them to seek out such help. The impact of badly-produced parts on an orchestra cannot be overstated, and may obscure the value of the music itself so much that the group could refuse to perform the work.

A relatively new, but inevitable, development in publishing is the issue of digital distribution of orchestral works. For many reasons, including protection of the intellectual property, major publishers still deliver their parts the old-fashioned way – shipping paper sets of parts. But more and more self-published composers want to send their music digitally. It saves them the time and money to hire or create the parts themselves. As it does that, it shifts these responsibilities to the orchestras. Just as the lines have become blurred between composer, copyist and publisher, the lines are also becoming blurred between publisher and orchestra librarian. Receiving PDF files for an entire work requires the librarian(s) to essentially become publishers, creating and binding the parts before they can do their real job as librarians to mark the parts. It is a rare orchestral organization that has the budget for equipment and staff that would be needed to fill this role, and it remains a big question how this will unfold in the future. If the industry determines that orchestras must each incorporate their own publishing departments in-house, the financial ramifications will have to be addressed so that the ability to present music by living composers will not diminish.

MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association) has worked with others in the industry for many years to try and improve the quality, legibility, and standards of printed orchestral music, as well as help chart a course to the digital future. We regularly invite the music engraving software, copier, and publisher representatives to our conferences, and have in-depth panel discussions on all of these issues. We have a joint working committee with members from various performing organizations and publishers in different genres to address practical solutions to problems we share. Much good has come from this collaboration, although, because the subject is so vast by its very nature, change does come slowly. One of the services MOLA provides is a guideline on printed music with specific suggestions about what works best for the performer (see http://www.mola-inc.org/pdf/GuidelinesBrochure.pdf) that was developed with substantial input from publishers. Our hope is that, as we move to new mediums of musical delivery to the player, we can keep the level of quality at the highest possible professional standard, so players can continue to perform this great music unfettered by the practical limitations of the part in front of them. We cannot stay in the past, but we can and should bring to the future what works, even if it comes in a completely unrecognizable package.

In future columns, we will take an in-depth look at the concept of electronic music stands combined with their practical usage by orchestras; copyright issues in the digital age; and other technological developments impacting orchestral music and musicians.

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