Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Musical Notes

Evan A. McCarthy

Notation is the very name we use for the organized system of written symbols that represent aurally perceived music. These written symbols, however, can only capture so much information about music, a musical performance, or the compositional process itself. Visually reading and studying these symbols do not recreate the sounds they represent. Rather, one must interpret the symbols through performance.

Developed over centuries, the notational system of Western art music grew out of many conventions, many of which were grounded in complex oral and mnemonic traditions. Liturgical books from the Middle Ages that contain music, like this western German antiphonary from c. 1200, were written with particular styles of musical notes that were specific to certain regions or time periods and aided the memory of singers in the celebration of devotional practices. Also from Germany, but copied two centuries later with another style of musical notation, is an office for the anointing of the sick as practiced at a Dominican convent in Nuremberg. Its marginalia reveal its continued use by nuns of succeeding generations, who would have remained literate in this style of notation.

Endless note-taking is customary in the preparation of a musical performance. Rehearsals and performances often require musicians to notate changes or additions to the printed musical score, be they repetitions of passages, reminders for a soloist, dynamics, or tempo indications. All of this information is a part of the real-time interpretation of those making music, often suggestive of a conversation among performers. Such annotations for tempo by the famous conductor Sir Georg Solti can be found in his conducting score of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, used for a 1981 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Practical or aesthetic demands often require a composer or conductor to adapt a work for a different performer, e.g., when substituting a different instrument or a singer of a higher or lower range. An annotated vocal score of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1907) illustrates how the music of the opera’s lead role could be adapted by the composer for a singer who has a higher vocal range.

Choreographers face many of these challenges when attempting to notate dance movement. Nikolai Sergeev’s dance notation for the 1903 Mariinskii Theatre production of Giselle demonstrates how musical notation could be borrowed and adapted to convey both rhythm and physical movement.

Composing music resembles the other fine arts in the stages of drafting, sketching, and shaping of ideas that are required to achieve a complete and organized work of art. Much valuable information can be gleaned from surviving fragments of that compositional process, uncovering how a particular work’s structure or its musical themes are connected, developed, or often rejected (and occasionally used elsewhere, in other works). We see this in the sketch for Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto with Selected Orchestra (ca. 1985). Again, as with the other fine arts, the urge to compose or even recall something popular can strike at any moment, as the lecture notes taken in 1869 by Harvard Law School student Frederic Dodge reveal.

Studying music and its notation requires one to read through musical scores, either silently, in performance (alone or with others), or nowadays with the aid of recordings. To aid scholars and make such musical reading and analysis more efficient, thematic catalogs allow one to quickly consult and compare the opening and main musical material of the works of a composer or genre. One of the first such catalogs of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was produced by Franz Hauser. The heavy annotation by many hands in his unprinted Sämtliche Werke thematisch verzeichnet (c. 1860) demonstrates how invaluable a reference it was for German scholars in the nineteenth century who were producing the first edition of Bach’s complete works. Scholarly encounters with living musical traditions of devotional practice require extensive note-taking, transcription, and commentary. The research of Laura Boulton on Byzantine chant on the island of Patmos in 1960 is an example of the annotated documentation that results from exhaustive fieldwork with musicians and their musical notation. The collaborative research that is embodied by the notes of these many scholars continues in an institution like Harvard University’s Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library (opened in 1956), where one can consult scores, sketches, and catalogs of many stripes all brimming with annotations that inform our understanding of music and musical performance.