Autograph Musical Notations:
Key signatures to give music lover's hearts a hemidemisemiquaver
by Michael Schulman
"Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly datelined
Torre del Lago, the composer's home north of Pisa.
"May 8 1891: Am beginning to have difficulties
finding time for letters and this diary.
Visitors besiege me...but the main thing is
whole piles of letters from all parts of America with
requests for autographs to which I reply very conscientiously.
Was at the rehearsal of the Piano Concerto...
the rehearsal went off all right."
(The Diaries of
Tchaikovsky [Westport, Conn., 1973]).
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was in New York City
on the day he wrote that diary entry.
He'd been invited to conduct a series of concerts inaugurating
New Yorks brand-new Music Hall, later re-named
On at least one of the many autographs he wrote
that day he added a musical quotation
— the famous opening theme from his Piano Concerto No.
1, the work he'd referred to in his diary. That autograph is
now one of the prize items in my collection of more
than 200 different composers' autograph musical notations, a collection unique in Canada but by no means
without precedent or parallel elsewhere.
It was in 1970, while seeking a bit of authentic
memorabilia of my favorite composer, Sergei
Rachmaninoff, that I discovered composers had been
writing out bits of their music as souvenirs for friends
and admirers for at least 300 years. (The earliest
known musical album-leaf, as they are called, is a
signed quotation from Lachrimae by the Elizabethan
composer John Dowland, dating from about 1604.)
The realization that I could own such musical
autographs appealed to me immediately, as it has to
other music-lovers for generations.
Musical album-leaves are visually attractive historical links with the
geniuses of music, holding near-mystical fascination
for me because a composer's handwritten notes represent the first permanent physical embodiment of the
music itself, the composer's inner inspiration made
No less prized by collectors than autograph notations
are the caricatures by the operatic tenor Enrico Caruso,
such as this one, of himself, executed with a swift and
very sure hand.
Perhaps sensing this, most composers have readily
participated in a tradition of writing out album-leaves.
The conscientious Tchaikovsky was one example;
another was Richard Wagner, recorded in his wife
Cosima's diary as diligently writing out "a new album-
leaf" for the wife of her friend Wilhelm Neumann.
Now, that particular Wagner autograph, along
with the Tchaikovsky, and with musical quotations
written out by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvorak,
occupy a "superstar" page in the special album that
houses my collection.
In my album, thanks to its size (45 by 36 cm
sheets of acetate covering the same size leaves of acid-
free paper), I've often grouped related autographs
together. Quotations from the famous operatic double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and
Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci share a page, as do album-
leaves from Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber,
who lived together for many years. One page is
devoted to composers of film and concert music —
Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
Miklés Rézsa and John
Williams — while another celebrates such great
operetta composers as Offenbach, Lehdr, Sigmund
Romberg and Johann Strauss Jr.
No sooner did I learn, during my Rachmaninoff
search, that composers expected to write out bars of
their music for collectors than I sent off my first set of
letters to ten of my favorite living composers, asking
"please" and saying "thank you" for a particular theme
and enclosing a self addressed envelope with an international reply coupon to cover return postage. I really
didn't expect much response, but within a few weeks I
had heard from most of them, including Aaron
Copland, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and
I've since written to nearly a hundred other contemporary composers, and with very few exceptions
they have proved quite willing to oblige me.
Even composers who didn't answer my written requests
acquiesced in person, when I interviewed them for a
magazine article and then confronted them with some
blank music paper and a photocopy of the desired
bars. That's how I added the previously unresponsive
John Cage, Krzysztof Penderecki and Elliott Carter to
my album. The photocopy? I take that because I dis-
covered from my earliest face-to-face requests that
composers can't always remember exactly the key or
rhythm of one of their themes, no matter how familiar
to the rest of us.
One of the most difficult contemporary composers to get was the reclusive late Soviet giant,
He was one of the first composers I wrote to, and in November 1970 I finally
received the quotation I had asked for, the haunting
"Passacaglia" theme from his Violin Concerto No. 1,
music composed for and dedicated to the great violinist David Oistrakh. When Oistrakh came to Toronto in February 1972, I brought the autograph for him to
sign as well. Oistrakh asked, "How did you get this?
Shostakovich almost never does this for people."
Opening of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.
I was not aware at that time just how often composers receive such requests.
A few years later, when I
met the American avant-garde composer George
Crumb in Toronto, I thanked him for having
responded to my request the previous year. "Which
one was that?" he asked, explaining that he receives
between ten and 15 requests every year. Imagine, then,
how many more requests a figure like Shostakovich
must have received. I suddenly appreciated my own
There are several dozen autograph dealers in the
United States and Europe (though none in Canada)
who sell letters, manuscripts, documents and signed
photos of historical figures — composers, royalty,
authors, scientists, sports and movie stars and the like.
Photos and concert programs signed by composers and performers appear frequently in dealers' catalogues, as do the clever caricatures that the
immortal tenor Enrico Caruso drew of himself and his colleagues. (I have one of those, too, a Caruso caricature
of himself, framed and occupying a bit of the wall previously taken by my album-leaves.) Every eight
months the world's largest autograph dealer, J.A.
Stargardt in Marburg, West Germany, offers at
auction some 1,400 items, of which about 250 are
related to music.
Prices for musical album-leaves depend on the
fame of the composer, the rarity of examples of his/her
notation, the condition of the specific item, the length
of the quotation and the familiarity of the particular
work quoted. My quotation from Elgar's Pomp and
Circumstance March No.
1 is obviously more desirable,
and more valuable (about $1000), than one from his
little-known cantata King Olaf (about $500).
Album-leaves of most 19th- and 20th- century
composers sell at prices in the hundreds of dollars,
although the most famous can run in the low-to-middle thousands.
Examples of the notations of Bach,
Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are
virtually unobtainable; the occasional offering of their
notations at auction brings bids well into five, or even
Sergei Rachmaninoff: opening of Symphony No. 2,
a souvenir written out for recording executive
Some 19th- and 20th- century composers' album-
leaves are exceptionally rare because of short lives
(Bizet, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Chopin, Mussorgsky)
or unrecognized talents (Anton Bruckner and Gustav
Mahler wrote few album-leaves because their music
was largely ignored during their lifetimes; there were
few admirers and few requests). Some were simply
stingy. Rossini and Verdi, though famous throughout
most of their long lives, were far less generous than
their equally famous though shorter-lived compatriot,
Puccini. (Puccini album-leaves are thus much more
common, and much more affordable.)
The best price, of course, is gratis, and slightly
more than half my collection is made up of items
obtained free from living composers.
A few are particularly unusual in appearance, because many
contemporary composers no longer feel bound to the
traditional use of notes and five-line staves.
As a result, I now possess such novelties as the multicolored
graphic notation of John Wyre, the electronic specifications of Ann Southam and the piano-roll perforations of Robert Daigneault, all three talented Toronto
As I turn the pages of my album, the themes
from more than 200 works are recalled, each represented by its composer's own characteristic meticulous
or sloppy calligraphy.
Because I first learned about
album-leaves when looking for a souvenir of
Rachmaninoff, given pride of place in my album, on
the very first page, is a quotation from my favorite of
his works, the Symphony No. 2.
Rachmaninoff wrote out the symphony's opening
bars for Frederick Gaisberg, the distinguished artists-
and-repertoire director of HMV Records during the
1930s and forties, and also a collector of album-leaves.
Gaisberg's collection was broken up and sold after his
death, and I now own several other items from it,
including album-leaves from Bartok and Prokofieff.
I think Gaisberg would have been pleased that his
autographs continue to provide that unique pleasure
perhaps best described by Irving Wallace, himself a
collector, in his novel The Seven Minutes (New York,
1969): "There was something about the heroes and
rulers and creators and martyrs of other centuries that
was unbelievable, as if they were inventions from folklore.
But here [collecting autographs], you could have
that intimacy of long ago, for your own and in your
own house. You could touch history and know it had