I found the manuscript of a piano sonata of my father\’s among some papers a while ago, and today I scanned it and sent it to his editor in Barcelona. She is hurrying to get his few remaining unpublished compositions out in time for the celebration of the centennial of his birth later this year.
The score is signed and dated spring, 1966, two years before his death. The paper has yellowed with age, but the familiar blue ink has kept its color, and it called up for me the memory of my father sitting at the dining room table, copying out scores by hand.
He composed at the piano, alternately holding a pencil and a cigarette between his right index and middle fingers, squinting against the smoke and trying out chords one after another. When a piece was finished he orchestrated it. And when that was done he copied out all the parts, by hand.
Like most professional musicians, my father cobbled a living playing the violin in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and teaching college classes and private students. While he was alive, his compositions brought him recognition but no significant income. So the copying out of scores had to be sandwiched in between endless rounds of classes and rehearsals and his own violin practice, not to mention driving my mother to the grocery store and all of us to church on Sundays.
In the evenings, after the last private student had packed up his violin and left, he would sit at the dining room table with his ash tray and his cigarette and his fountain pen with the blue ink and copy out the music he had written, note by note, stopping every once in a while to push his glasses up on his nose. And when I showed up with the plates and silverware to set the table for dinner he would blow on the ink to dry it and stub out his cigarette and put everything away without a word. Then we would eat and when that was over he would leave for orchestra rehearsal.
I wonder what he thought about during those endless hours of copying music? Did he hear it in his head? Did he resent having to do this mechanical task when he would much rather be at the piano creating new work?
I never saw him rush. He never seemed frustrated. He sat there for however long he had, peacefully making marks that I found, and still find, beautiful in themselves–the verticals perfectly vertical, the bars on the sixteenth notes parallel with each other, and the tempo and mood indications in his sweeping, old-fashioned hand–allegro ma non tanto, moderato cantabile, molto espressivo.
My father\’s handwriting was famous in the family. He was said to have inherited this talent from his father, a silent, obsessively orderly man whose hand was even more perfect than my father\’s. It was considered unfortunate that the calligraphy gene had passed me by, though at least the musical one, for better or worse, had not.
It struck me, as I scanned the score and with one click sent it flying over the Atlantic and across the width of the Iberian peninsula all the way to Barcelona, that my father had copied out that piece using the same basic technology as Bach–a pen, some ink, and his own hand. Or, in the case of Bach, someone\’s hand, since Bach\’s twenty children, I am sure, were put to copying scores as soon as they could hold a pen, or their father\’s could never have managed his enormous output.
I\’ll never know how much more music my father might have composed if he had had either twenty children or a computer and a printer. But those blue ink lines on yellowing paper contain far more than potential melody–they hold the very presence of my father in the dining room at dusk, bent over his task, while my mother sautes garlic on the stove and I put away my geometry problem set and get out the knives and forks, the napkins, and the dinner plates.