MUSIC / Technique: Settling a few old scores: Stephen Roe and Simon Maguire are manuscript detectives. Sabine Durrant meets them and picks up some clues

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The Independent Culture
IN 1957, Mr and Mrs Osborne from Yale came to Sotheby's in London and bid successfully for an autograph manuscript of Mahler's First Symphony. When they got home, they put a 78 on the gramophone and sat, the two of them, with their fingers on the score and their ears on the music. Perhaps Mrs Osborne lay back on the couch with her eyes closed. Maybe Mr Osborne pretended to conduct. But at the end of the first movement something went awry. The manuscript and the music began to separate. Mr and Mrs Osborne looked more closely and saw that what they had was a large section of music, written by Mahler (later discarded), that they'd never seen before. A whole extra movement.

A great find for Mr and Mrs Osborne. But a fairly major oversight by the auction house that took their money. In those days, the catalogue entry at Sotheby's would have been a piddly four lines and the person who documented the Mahler probably couldn't even read music. It happened then, but it would never happen now. These days, when Sotheby's holds an auction of musical manuscripts - in May and December - it produces a large, glossy wad of catalogue, complete with close-up photographs and detailed commentary. They have men now with their noses to the ground. Men who never make mistakes. Men who know. Sotheby's has brought in the professionals.

In the annexe to the Bond Street showroom, down a side street, up some complicated stairs and round a few corners, in a room so tucked away that the windows open on to a wall, sit the manuscript detectives. There are two of them. Stephen Roe specialises in German instrumental music, C P E Bach in particular, and shakes hands as delicately as a leaf of limp foolscap. Simon Maguire is dark and wears glasses, lives for Italian opera and has a grasp like a clamp. Their training: degrees in music at Worcester College, Oxford, and a D Phil apiece. Their tools: a magnifying glass, a London Library ticket and a frame of reference as convoluted as J S Bach's family tree.

'But you have to have humility before the object,' says Stephen Roe, 'let the object speak to you rather than you saying what the object is. If you think you recognise something immediately, you've probably made a mistake. You have to look for clues.'

Before an object - or 'kit' in Sotheby's lingo - can speak, it must be found. When it comes to the latest catalogue (containing a 'discovered' Verdi manuscript and the famous letter by Leopold Mozart, discussing Haydn's admiration of his son), these detectives believe in protecting their sources. They're as secretive about where these documents came from as they are about their method of transportation. 'We wouldn't want to be followed,' they explain.

But on past 'sweeps', they're more forthcoming. Often things start with a phone call. Roe acts out a typical exchange in the manner of a police reconstruction: ' 'We've got a collection of old music here,' they say. 'Oh it's terribly old.' 'Well how old?' you ask '19th century,' they say, which usually means 1900s. So then you say 'Where was it found?' 'In Grandma's piano stool.' So then you ask questions about grandma and you can easily decide then whether grandma was Benjamin Britten's nanny or whether she was just an amateur pianist.'

You get your disappointing leads and your good ones. Roe worked on an interesting case recently. 'I got a phone call from a man in north London, who didn't know what he had, but said his father had been a singer, so I decided it was worth the trip. It turned out his father had given premieres of works by Vaughan Williams and in this pile of papers was some very, very nice music by the major figures of the Twenties and Thirties.'

THAT'S small fry compared to some of their exposures. Roe travels extensively (in the last five weeks, he's been to Japan, New York, Paris, Berlin and Munich - 'Look at me - I'm a wreck'). Often, his trips are ordinary - talking to potential buyers, meeting vendors. But sometimes, he hits the big one. Nothing, they say, creates a frisson like stumbling on something missing, presumed dead (still lost: Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, Handel's Amadigi and Wagner's Rienzi - supposed to have gone up in Hitler's bunker). There's the time, then, that Roe unearthed the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor in a bank vault in Germany. Or the occasion he stumbled upon Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op 9, on a bookshelf in England. Or the day he caught sight of the autograph manuscript of Mozart's Fantasia and Sonata, missing for 100 years.

'I got a phone call on a Saturday afternoon from a Mozart scholar who said he'd been on the phone to a friend in Philadelphia who'd seen it. I arranged to go out the next week. It was in a Baptist seminary in Philadelphia where it had been hidden in a safe. The last we'd heard of it was in 1889, when it had been sold to an industrialist in Cincinnati. It had been exhibited in the Fifties, but no one had noticed it.'

Roe and Maguire would have noticed. Roe and Maguire would have had it on the first plane home (which is what, in 1990, Roe did). They would have been able to read the music and hum it in their heads. They would have been able to decipher the old Gothic script and diagnose the paper ('any musicologist worth his salt looks at paper these days'). Most importantly, they would have been able to distinguish the hand of Mozart.

And herein lies the rub. When it's an autograph copy you're authenticating, there are many pitfalls. Forgeries stalk the musical manuscript world (Maguire has seen a fake first page of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and reckons that out of 15 available Smetana letters, only five are genuine), but they're nothing to the ghostly presence of copyists. Many composers employed copyists to write out parts; if the copyist worked with a composer for a long time, they tended to develop similar mannerisms. 'It's horribly difficult,' says Roe. 'The important clues are the flow, the formation of the notes, the phrasing and, particularly, the nature of the rests.'

You have to know then that J S Bach - a calligraphic composer - tended to detach his sharp signs from the note, while Missner, his copyist, ran them into the note; that the only difference between the writing of Ava Wagner and her father lies in the formation of the letter d; that Mendelssohn's bass clefs are almost always circular; that J C Bach's clefs changed throughout his life from being very upright to rather squat; that after C P E Bach developed arthritis, there was a tremble to his hand; that Donizetti's C clef resembles a K.

ALL THIS information isn't just applied to autograph manuscripts. Roe and Maguire scrutinise proof copies too (for composers' last minute alterations) and first editions (often revealed by a spelling mistake or, as with Fidelio, a missing umlaut). But it's the original music that stirs the most emotion. Maguire remembers an old man asking to see the autograph manuscript of Schubert's Die schone Mullerin, even though he couldn't read music: 'He held it in his hands and hummed.'

And Maguire and Roe seem similarly stirred by the pieces of paper they touch. 'We're always terribly sorry to see something go,' says Roe. 'I think actually following a score with a composer's original manuscipt, you see - or hear - a performance no earthly musician can realise. The phrasing and stressing can be quite clear in a way you'd never get on a printed page where everything is evened out. I always remember details of a score. Like with the Schuman piano concerto, I shall never forget that the gorgeous linking between the second and third movements, Schumann crossed out at one point. And it seems so fundamental to the work . . .'

No performance of Mahler's First Symphony has ever been the same since he handled a copy of that either. 'Mahler had gone to town scrawling alterations all over it. There was this strong penship, lots and lots of footnotes, so confident. I haven't held that manuscript for 10 years now, but I can still see it.'

'Was that the one with or without the extra movement?' asks Maguire.

(Photograph omitted)