Ghosts from the past

I have a large library of musical scores, thanks in part to the foresight and generosity of my parents during my teens, and after that to the foresight and generosity of Visa and MasterCard. Now that so many useful scores (and quite a lot of useless ones, too) are available as free downloads from the International Music Score Library Project, many musicians’ libraries are chiefly composed of pieces of 8.5 x 11 photocopy paper. Leaving aside the issue of how important it is to use good scholarly editions, one of the problems with this is that regular paper degrades far faster than the high-quality paper used by music publishers, but what does it matter, as long as we can continue to replace it with another print-out?

It’s always more satisfying, though, to work from the larger paper sizes and better printing quality of a “real” score, which is why I use them whenever I can. What’s more, they somehow seem more…human to me. Sometimes I pick up a score I’ve had for many years, and feel a little jolting shock at the handwriting in them. In most cases, it’s my own–the rounded printing of my early teens, or my messier undergraduate scribble. Other times, it’s the handwriting of my teachers.

I had just such a shock this morning when I picked up my score of Prokofiev’s cello sonata, which I haven’t played for five years, so that I could start practising it for an upcoming recital with Rajung Yang. I’d first learned it at the age of 19 with my beloved, recently-deceased teacher Alexander Ivashkin, and there, all over the cello part, was his distinctive sloping handwriting. He’d scrawled Prokofiev’s inscription from the manuscript source (“Mankind sounds very proud!”) at the top of the page. Elsewhere were his instructions: “Higher position!”, “Unexpected”, “Precise”, and so on. “Release overtones,” he wrote, next to the pizzicato chords at the start of the second movement.

You can imagine the effect this had on me. After I’d dispensed with several tissues, I set to work on practising the piece, to honour Alexander Vassilievich’s memory as much as to prepare myself for the recital. That was when I realized how much I’d internalized his instructions. “Crazy bells” was how he described the frantic passage at the end of the first movement. A passage from the third was, in his words, “boats on the water.” Every detail of our lessons on Prokofiev came back to me–the tone of his voice, his rapid speech when he got excited, the inclination of his head, his elegant tweed coat, his shaking fist in the air when he was frustrated with me–with the startling appearance of a ghost from the past.

Like the place in the last movement of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, where–without any kind of warning–the composer suddenly launches into a quotation from the overture to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a shock of recognition reminds us of our old ghosts, where we came from, and what we’ve become. How I miss him, my teacher, my musical father.


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