I am always humbled when I think that every single note of every single composer who is in our current pantheon was set on paper by himself. Though there are rare recorded exceptions (Bach to his son on his deathbed with Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit), it is in general impossible to dictate music. It has been estimated that it would take 40 years of 40-hour work weeks just to transcribe Bach, let alone think about the composition while you were going along.

I’ve always found lots of visual satisfaction of looking at certain scores from Lully first editions to Gregorian chant to Berlioz operas to Tom Adès’ Asyla. Regardless of the music, some scores seem a lot more beautiful to me visually. Composers such as Dutilleux and Berg have always been interested in the visual aspect of the music on the page, and Dutilleux even composes sometimes in “shapes” that are visible in the page to an interesting effect musically (or sonically).

At the moment I’ve been lost in a study of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances which is an absolutely gargantuan work that is as fun to listen to as it is to look at on the page to see his “shifting geological strata” of sound.

One composer who makes particularly striking looking scores (and of course striking sounding as well) is Pierre Boulez. His Pli selon pli, besides being one of the most sublime and wonderful compositions of the last century, is also one of the most gorgeous looking scores I’ve seen.

Of course, in the dim and distant past, music was about much more than just “the sound it makes” (Beecham) – it was about the play of proportion, the interaction of pattern and motive: it was geometry and mathematics laid out on paper, “order” with the potential to be demonstrated in sonic form, the divine geometry of the music of the spheres, etc., etc., and it was studied as a science (i.e. part of the Medieval Quadrivium, with geometry, mathematics and astronomy) rather than a rhetorical art (i.e. part of the Trivium, with grammar, logic and rhetoric). It goes against all our instincts to remember that this was so, but that’s the way it was. In this respect composers who indulge in Augenmusik are not therefore necessarily guilty of a crime against music.

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