A Fine Hand for Music

As the production of printed matter grows increasingly automated (not to mention digitized), the handwriting of the past feels more precious with each passing year. One of the great pleasures of working in an archival repository is appreciating the wild variety of human penmanship, from chicken-scratch capitals to the ornate, formal calligraphy of diplomatic documents. “He writes a fine hand” is no longer a well-understood saying, and yet I miss the physicality of the phrase: the sense of the appendage merging with the text it produces.

I was reminded recently of how fine handwriting can turn a written document into an object of beauty as I processed a collection of scores by Robert Capanna. Capanna was a Philadelphia composer and longtime Executive Director of the Settlement School, a community arts school with campuses across the greater Philadelphia area. The scores range from the early 1970s to 2016, a span that showcases interesting changes in the way music was drafted and reproduced. For the first few decades of Capanna’s career, he drafted his scores in pen and pencil on onion-skin, sending the finished versions off to the Theodore Presser Company for engraving and printing. You can see this process in Capanna’s score for “Day,” a long work for voices and chamber orchestra which he revised continually over more than ten years; the initial onion-skin draft, which Capanna’s precise penmanship, transformed into a readable (if more pedestrian-looking) printed score.


But “Day”—perhaps because of its length and complexity—is not one of Capanna’s most beautiful pen-and-ink productions. That honor belongs to his shorter works, many of them for solo instruments. In “Phorminx 2,” an early piece for solo guitar, we can see how Capanna’s pen-and-ink onion-skin drafts resemble architectural schematics as much as they do musical texts. Most composers use musical manuscript paper when drafting, with ready-made staves, but Capanna chose to write his on gridded onion-skin, writing the staves himself; his penmanship was so precise, however, that on first glance a viewer has a hard time telling the difference.


Tiny, precise details abound in Capanna’s scores, both intrinsic to the score itself, in terms of dynamics and articulation, and deeply pleasing to even the unmusical reader. One doesn’t have to read music to appreciate the interplay of precision and slight human error (check that micro-blot on the lower left) in Capanna’s crescendos and diminuendos, and there is a certain dashing swagger in the curve of his note-tails and his bold, capitalized tempo changes.

“Phorminx 2,” for all its dynamism, is a relatively restrained bit of drafting, by Capanna’s standards: more the work of an engineer than an artist. “Sextet,” a score for instrumental ensemble, has more style; the slashing “x” of its title looks a bit Art Deco, and the gapped, free-written staves (no help from a grid here!) give it a much looser, jazzier feel.

As with “Phorminx 2,” the small details add to the sense of artistic precision, such as this tiny finger, denoting a certain plucking position for the harpist.


To my mind, though, the most fascinating aspect of having Capanna’s pen-and-ink drafts comes from looking at the places where precision and imperfection rub elbows. His piece for baritone and mixed ensemble, “Traveller,” appears in the collection in a seemingly earlier draft than many other pieces—or so it seems to me, with its shadows of erased bar-lines and rearranged inflection marks. Because the piece combines text and music, I enjoy the way Capanna works to fit the meter of the words to the music, and in the process shows how he wants his lines articulated. It feels somehow indicative of his personality!

By the late 1990s Capanna had begun using a music-writing program called Sibelius, which allowed him to print draft copies of his manuscripts from his home computer. The result is certainly cleaner than some of the earlier scores, and I imagine it must have seemed a remarkable time-saving device—but the result is a more familiar, homogenized product. This front page of Capanna’s 2004 piece “Reliquaries” gives little indication of the composition process, since one of the aspects of a program like Sibelius is to erase the distinction between draft and finished product.


Again, I imagine that there were some musicians who, working their way through this piece, would have been relieved to find some of Capanna’s more idiosyncratic notation stripped away. But I can’t help but feel a certain loss: the sense of a “fine hand” moving across the page.

1 thought on “A Fine Hand for Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s