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From My Father\’s Hand

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

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  She is hurrying to get his few remaining unpublished compositions out in time for the celebration of the centennial of his birth later this year.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.

14 Responses

  1. It’s amazing the way seeing the handwriting of a long gone loved one can recall that person to memory. There’s something so personal about it. Seeing my Nana’s cramped green writing does that for me. Likewise, her sister’s big, loopy blue handwriting reminds me of her laughter.It seems to me as though hearing a piece of music composed by someone you loved would almost be like hearing their voice.

  2. Beautiful memories and a beautiful post. You're lucky to have these things of your fathers. And I'm glad Kathy did some googling. I'm off to listen to some of his music, and maybe try my hand at the first page of his piano sonata.

  3. (from HCB) As a pianist, I appreciate this post very much—also because my father (an artist) had beautiful handwriting, too (as does my mother, even at 90). Your father's written score is a work of precision and art even before the music is played. I agree with what others have said—and handwriting is even more special and personal these days, with all the texting and typing. I wish more people would be aware of this today.

  4. We're losing the art of calligraphy as practiced by the common man/woman. It takes practice to make harmonious marks on paper, and if it weren't for signing credit card receipts, I wouldn't even be able to hand write my own name anymore.

  5. As I read your post I was hoping you'd include a copy for us to see. I wish I read music so I could hear what it sounds like. Maybe Mali can record herself playing it and post it for us. Off to find a YouTube video your father's music.

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