By Laurence Vittes
With the advent of software like Sibelius and Finale, the use of physical rather than virtual writing instruments to write out scores seemed doomed to become forever obsolete. The recent surge in interest in the fountain pen as a general writing instrument, however, reminds us of how central the fountain pen was to the art of composing from the 1870s, and how dramatic the difference is between the mechanical act of typing and the tangible focus and flow of laying down ink on paper.
Wagner used a gold fountain pen to write out the entire fair copy of the score of Die Meistersinger. Mahler used a black fountain pen to write out the fair copy of his Eighth Symphony. Stravinsky used a fountain pen, as can be seen in the 1957 NBC documentary, A Conversation with Igor Stravinsky. When Henry Cowell was admitted to San Quentin [on a morals charge] in 1937 he requested a typewriter and a fountain pen. Dimitri Shostakovich was another fountain pen fan, apparently fond of purple ink.
In 1940 Leonard Bernstein wrote a friend, “I left a valuable manuscript of Copland’s … plus a valuable fountain pen plus all my thesis notes over which I had theoretically slaved (!) in New York on the train coming back from that City of Sin.” Professor Hao Huang says, “It looks like Bernstein wrote his Piano Trio at Harvard in 1937 with fountain pen.”
Hao also recalls the famous story he was told at Juilliard when Darius Milhaud was asked to say what “inspired” him to compose. He’s supposed to have pointed to his fountain pen, Hao says. “There, that’s my inspiration. I can’t work with a pencil.”
The fountain pen never made the same impact as a score writing tool in China, which is the fountain pen capital of the world because of the need to make lines of varying widths in forming the characters of Chinese writing. Still, Hao recounts that in 1939 Mao Zedong gifted Xian Xinghai with an American Parker fountain pen after the premiere performance of his Yellow River Cantata, later the Yellow River Piano Concerto.
The concept of a fountain pen—a pen that has its own reservoir of ink rather than having to be dipped in an inkwell—has been around for more than a millennium. In 1074 an Egyptian caliph in 1074 demanded and received such a pen. There is said to be evidence that Leonardo da Vinci used a fountain pen.
Mark Simon, who has been using Finale for the past 16 years, explained how he once deployed the fountain pen for note heads, flags and beams, clefs, instrument names, dynamics, and for tempo markings and other bold-face directions such as cresc., dim., and con sord.
In fact, Karl Henning urges young composer to learn how to notate properly by writing longhand in order to know where computer software is helpful and where its limitations lie. Digital sampling, he says, allows composers to write parts “which would be both unplayable on a specific instrument, as well as being inaudible in a large orchestral texture if played by an acoustic instrument in an ensemble of acoustic instruments.”
The key to writing scores with a fountain pen is using a nib—the part of the pen that lays down the ink—whose familiar point has been cut into a broad italic or stub shape so that it can make thin vertical strokes for the stems and flags of the notes, and the fat horizontal ones for their heads, and can do it very fast.
While established Japanese pen makers like Platinum, Pilot, and Sailor have been offering so-called “music nibs” for the purpose, the real excitement in the field is coming from American companies like San Jose-based Osprey Pens which recommends using their “juicy, soft flex” broad #5.5 nib for music writing, allowing the user to create both the fine lines and wide horizontal strokes score writing requires.
Before Sibelius, Finale, and pens with steel nibs, there were the goose quills that Beethoven and even Brahms used into the 1890s. The quills from the left wing of a goose, that is. Because as Nicholas McGegan explained, if a right hander like Beethoven used a feather from the right wing, “it would have gone straight up his nose as he was writing. The goose feather has to be from the left wing,” McGegan explained, “so that the tip of the feather points away from the person writing.”