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Composer vs Engraver

How do we deal with a composer's strange notational choices? OPUS 101's Tristan Jakob‑Hoff explores this oft-encountered issue

I don't care if you think it's an outdated convention. When I say I want a perm, give me a perm!

Being a music engraver is a bit like being a hairdresser. Your client may very well have a good idea of what he or she wants, but they don't necessarily know how that end result can be achieved. That's why they've come to you, a specialist, rather than attempting to do the job themselves: you are the one with the tools and the expertise to shape the raw material - whether it be hair or musical notes - into the end product the client has in mind.

A delicate balance is therefore needed between what the client wants and what you believe will work best for them. You may have the experience, but you are ultimately there to serve the client's vision. And, just as it is entirely possible to give someone a perfectly executed haircut that they absolutely loathe, so it is possible to engrave music with a great deal of technical proficiency and nonetheless completely fail to realise the composer's intentions.

Very few composers sit up late at night reading thick tomes on music notation by the likes of Elaine Gould or Gardner Read. Most composers are more interested in simply getting the notes down on the page than in understanding the nuances of modern music notation practice. As a result, many composers - including many of the "greats" - have some highly, shall we say, "idiosyncratic" approaches to music notation that are at odds with the usual conventions.

This leads to a dilemma which is regularly faced by music engravers: when is it appropriate to "correct" the composer?


I recently ran into a good example of this dilemma when engraving an orchestral transcription I had made of Rachmaninov's Prelude in F minor, Op. 32 No. 6. Throughout the original piano piece, Rachmaninov has done something highly unusual:

The opening bars of Rachmaninov's F minor Prelude, Op. 32 No. 6

As you can see, the piece is strewn with sextuplet figures that cut against the basic 2/4 metre of the piece. With only a few exceptions, every bar of this piece features some element that is rhythmically offset by half a beat, leading to constant breaches of two fairly fundamental rules of music notation:

1) Don't obscure the middle of the bar; and

2) Don't beam notes across the barline

In fact, in the space of this 60-bar piece, Rachmaninov breaks one or other of these rules no fewer than 95 times!

Now, bear in mind that these rules are not arbitrary. They exist for a very good reason: musicians need to be able to count time and read notes simultaneously. It therefore reduces the mental workload for a performer if the notes can be grouped into batches that begin at the start of the beats they are trying to count. it means they are able to parse two lots of information with a single glance at the page:

One of the few instances in the F minor Prelude where the note groupings align to the beat

But for most of this piece, Rachmaninov is asking for something different. He wants to deliberately subvert the standard subdivisions of the bar in order to create a sense of rhythmic unease. If you were to just close your eyes and listen to this piece you would be hard pressed to decide where beats 1 and 2 fell in any given bar. Just when you think you've got a handle on it, he changes things up and you're lost again. Have a listen to the great man playing the piece himself and you'll hear what I mean:

So we are faced with a conflict between musical readability and compositional intent. This becomes even more acute when dealing with music for multiple players (such as my orchestral arrangement), because players in an ensemble will not always have sufficient context to see where their part fits into the overall musical structure. Nor will they always have a great deal of time to learn the piece - in many studio situations, the orchestra will be sight-reading.

There are a few things an engraver could theoretically do in this situation. One would be to group the sextuplets according to the beat and rely on written slurs and accents to indicate where the musical stresses fall. But this would not be much use in bars 53-57, for instance, which feature a syncopated, two-quaver descending figure with no slurs - and accents on every note!

To be honest, the notation is probably the last thing a pianist is going to be worried about here

Another would be to break all the sextuplet beams into groups of three instead of six, or use secondary beams to break up the larger groups. But Rachmaninov actually does this himself on occasion within the piece, for reasons that aren't always totally clear. There is a lack of consistency that nonetheless feels very deliberate:

Why though?

Of course, the best thing to do in most situations like this would be to go back to the composer and ask exactly what they are aiming for. In the same way as a hairdresser should consult with a client throughout the process ("Are you happy with the length?" "Would you like me to take the sideburns up a little?" "Now you're absolutely SURE you want this shade of pink?"), so a music engraver should always try to ask before taking any executive decisions to alter the composer's own notation. But, as in the case of Rachmaninov, who died in 1943, this isn't always possible.

So it becomes a matter of judgement for the engraver. There are no right or wrong answers in this business, and I know several of my colleagues who will have very different ideas about how to handle this particular situation. But in cases like this, I default to this fundamental maxim:


My view is that Rachmaninov had his reasons for notating this music the way he did, and there is no question that what he did was a deliberate choice made in order to indicate a specific musical purpose. And as my orchestral arrangement is destined for the concert hall rather than the recording studio, asking the players to work just a little bit harder to learn their parts seems like worthwhile trade-off in order to respect Rachmaninov's clearly expressed (if slightly perverse!) intentions:

Sorry woodwinds - can you ever forgive me?


Finally, here is a list of questions I ask myself when I am confronted with strange notation issues like this (and I don't have the luxury of just picking up the phone and asking the composer what they hell they were thinking):

  1. Is this a mistake? Is it a misprint?

  2. Is this even the composer's doing, or the work of an earlier engraver/editor?

  3. Is it a conscious decision by the composer, but made in ignorance of the conventions?

  4. Is this something the composer does in other pieces?

  5. Is this just an outdated convention that has a well-established modern replacement?

  6. Would altering the notation make the music clearer to performers?

  7. Would such alterations in any way obscure the underlying musical intent?

  8. Are there ways to retain the musical intent whilst making things clearer for the performer?

  9. How critical is it that the performers are able to sight-read the music in a single, unrehearsed run-through?

As I said above, there are usually no right or wrong answers to these questions, and often it will be a matter of judgement. Some research will usually be needed: checking the notation manuals, seeking out autograph copies of scores, looking for similar oddities in the composer's other works, and so on.

But above all else, we should never be unthinking slaves to a set of unvarying notational standards. Instead, we must remember to always let the needs of the music guide our decision making. After all, nobody is going to thank you for that perfectly executed fade cut when what they asked for was a mullet.

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