Some years ago, when I was preparing for one of my performance diplomas, I received some mentoring from a concert pianist acquaintance. On placing my copy of Liszt’s Sonnetto del Petrarca no. 123 on the music desk of the piano, he commented that there was “an awful lot of writing on it” and that it might be better if I worked from a clean score. I replied that I found the notes, annotations and personal doodles helpful; he then told me an anecdote about A Very Famous Pianist who would work from a photocopy or second copy of the score and put the original away in a drawer. It was only when I was working towards my Fellowship diploma, for which Schubert’s Sonata D959 was the main work in the programme, that I recalled this anecdote and I invested in several copies of the Henle edition of the sonata – one was my “working score”, the other a clean score (I also had a Barenreiter edition of the score because I found the introductory notes useful). As you can see from the photo, the working score of the Schubert is really quite messy – and I suspect my concert pianist acquaintance would be appalled by the number of annotations scrawled upon it.

I recently revisited the Liszt Sonetto and was genuinely horrified by the mess I’d made of the score – so many annotations, directions to myself (such as “Head up!” to remind me not to dip my head into the keyboard to give the impression of profound emotion!) and sundry other scribblings, many of which I now found illegible or incomprehensible. I wanted to play the piece but the annotations were simply too distracting. And because it’s an inexpensive score, to rub out all the markings would make a mess of the paper….  A clean score would mark a clean start.

At the most practical level, annotations can help us find our way around the music. Fingerings in particular need to be marked up and are invaluable when returning to a previously-learnt piece, enabling one to (re-)negotiate tricky passages. But a clean score of a previously-learnt work can be very liberating – as I found when I returned to the Schubert sonata with a view to reviving it. With a brand-new score, I noticed new details in the music, so much so that at times I felt I was learning a different piece – and then the anecdote about the concert pianist who put his clean scores in a drawer really made sense to me. If you have spent weeks and months – years even – with the same score, the same familiar pages, now dog-eared and friable from so much use, you stop seeing all the notes and personal markings. A clean score is a useful wake-up and a chance to refresh the music.

Students may be reluctant to write on their scores, perhaps seeing the text as something inviolable. As a teacher, I encourage students to mark up their scores: the act of writing a note is an important part of the learning process, and besides, notes made in pencil can be rubbed out when no longer needed. Also, some editorial markings in scores, especially in exam pieces, can be confusing – fingerings may need to be changed or a bar or section might require some additional clarification. Because teaching is about respect (or at least it should be), I never write on a student’s score without their permission (though I have witnessed other less respectful teachers scrawling bossy notes across a student’s score without asking first).

Annotations and the other writings on our scores are also incredibly personal and significant and represent our own special relationship with the text, and a specific time in our musical development. Our notes and markings may be intimate and private, and, almost diary-like, chronicle an evolving relationship with the music.

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(Header image: part of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations score)


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I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.

I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”

He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.

A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!

I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires.  Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.

My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)