By Patrick Summers, HGO Artistic and Music Director
It is just a shelf of hardbound books to some, but to me it represents a lifetime of knowledge and aspiration. This single shelf houses all of my Schirmer piano-vocal scores of operas, many of which I’ve had my whole adult life, and includes all of the major operas of the repertoire and, I believe, every hardbound score published by the old publishing house. This shelf of scores is recreated across the country by other coaches and lovers of opera, and that unique kinship evokes powerful memories for me.
In my little hometown library in Southern Indiana, which was in an old house near the one in which I grew up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I often perused the single shelf of the small library devoted to the arts, and this included books on all the arts, often just a single volume: a Kobbe history of opera, a guide to symphonic repertoire, a book of plays, and for some unknown reason, a single hardbound copy of Verdi’s La traviata. What, I thought as a youngster, was this curious thing? As I was a budding young pianist, I took the book to the librarian to check it out and she noted that no one had ever taken it out before, and that it must have been there for years. I took it home and learned every note of it.
The Schirmer scores are bound in green covers that looked like little golf courses when they were new. Mine are now faded with use and time. The great New York publishing house stopped manufacturing them years ago, and only the soft covers are currently available. The demand for printed scores has dropped altogether due to music’s ready availability on the Internet. The paper-bound versions of the Schirmer scores are instantly recognizable and demonstrably European: on the cover is an image of the auditorium of La Scala, the same opera house whose exterior has for many years adorned the cover of scores from another famous publishing house, Ricordi.
The hardbound Schirmer scores were a luxury, but they have lasted, and though the repertoire is European and utterly standard, the distinctively green scores are unique to America. The printed music itself, the tactile and visual feel of it on the page, is opera to me. Of course, printed music isn’t music, just as maps are not cities, and so these printed scores obviously aren’t opera, but they are the point at which it comes to life in the imagination, which is where all music must begin—and never ends.