I would have missed Jesse Green’s vivid recollection of Mathilde Pincus in last week’s New York Times had it not been for a family friend who thought I might enjoy his description of a 1980s music copyist’s appearance: “Like the first scene of ‘Macbeth’ or victims of some weird industrial accident — splotched with ink, filigreed with eraser dust, haloed by ammonia and plastered with Band-Aids.”
About those Band-Aids: “Before computers, copyists wrote out every note of a score on onionskin paper, then rewrote it all when it changed or cut and spliced the rewrites into two or three dozen orchestra parts,” Green wrote. “Lowering a song’s key by one tone was an all-night proposition; new songs, which came and went constantly, were even worse.”
Green’s opening paragraphs set up the remainder of his piece, which is well worth reading, but, alas, concerns the old tryout system of musicals rather than the late-night toils of music copyists. Fortunately, though, he included a link to pure gold: an April 15, 1976 Times article about Mathilde Pincus’s special Tony Award from that year in recognition of her services. The article, which characterized Pincus as a “cheerful woman who is famous for her equanimity,” identified her as “the leading music preparation supervisor in New York”.
I’ll reveal both my age and ignorance here by saying that I had never heard of Mathilde Pincus before reading her name in these articles. The loss is entirely mine. I was only 11 years old when Pincus died in 1988, and surely did not know at that time I would pursue a music career, let alone the relatively obscure niche of music preparation.
Although I knew of Chelsea Music Services, I had not realized that Pincus was its co-founder. Chelsea Music Services was established in the 1950s when Don Walker invited Pincus to move to New York after Pincus played viola in a tryout run of Finian’s Rainbow in Philadelphia.
According to Steven Suskin’s book The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations, Pincus worked on more than 150 shows in her career, ranging from Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, and The Music Man to shows like Les Misèrables, Into the Woods, and The Phantom of the Opera.
Pincus’s legacy is legendary. What impressed me the most, though — even more than the list of first-rate shows on which she worked — was how she described the job to Times reporter Raymond Ericson in that 1976 article:
“People think of us as music copyists,” she said, “but we’re much more than that, and we’re trying to change our image. That’s one reason I’m so happy about the Tony award. The first thing we do is prepare a score that is intelligible to the arranger. The composer turns over his songs to us before rehearsals begin. They may be as fragmentary as a pencil sketch showing a melody and the accompanying harmonies. But plenty of verbal instructions go with it. They’re given in a special kind of musical language that only we understand.
“We may be told to raise this a fourth, transpose that down a key, put a tutti in here, give this part to the flute. A tutti, which means full orchestra, can be worked out many ways and we have to use our judgment as to which is best in the context. We write all this out in a music score that is intelligible to the orchestrator or arranger and give it to him. When we get the arrangements back we have to reduce them to another score that includes a piano part, the vocal melody and indications of other important instrumental lines that the singer and conductor must know about. This simplified score can be used by both the rehearsal pianist and the conductor. We also extract the individual orchestral parts.”
If there is a better description of our profession that is both as exhaustive and succinct as this, I have not heard it.
I was also relieved to know that first rehearsal jitters are nothing new: “Miss Pincus said that she goes to the first orchestral rehearsals terrified that something will go wrong but that so far she has been spared any serious embarrassment.” And I was pleased to have validation of how invaluable the copyist is: “She is also on hand so that she can take down any suggestions for changes made by the director, the producer or the composer. That way they don’t have to interrupt the conductor constantly.”
Coincidentally, before hearing about Jesse Green’s Times article, I had spent the weekend creating a promotional video for my business, NYC Music Services. Part of the reason I decided to make the video was because of the challenge I always face when telling people — including other musicians and potential clients — what a music preparation service does and why it’s important.
Now in addition to the video, I can refer people to the Mathilde Pincus article. I would have loved to have seen the “enormous copying machine” that she used when on the road with a show; I’ll claim it as a distant ancestor of the Ricoh and HP units that adorn my office today. Even more fascinating was the news that “her spry 84-year-old mother, incidentally, is usually with her, because she is an expert operator of the machine.” Mom: take note!
In observing that the business of music copying had “only about 200 practitioners in the whole country,” the paper of record said that it “may well be a dying art.” The business and the technology have changed over time — indeed it’s true that copying by hand has all but been replaced by the computer — but today the profession thrives as much as ever. I’ll venture to state that there are more than 200 of us these days.
We can thank Mathilde Pincus for her role in that. After all, she set out to change our image, and I think she succeeded. (Another is Bert Kosow, who, in addition to being a premier copyist of his time, ran a successful music copying class in the 1980s.)
One postscript: The automatic process that the New York Times makes use of to digitize archived articles like the one from 1976 occasionally “introduces transcription errors or other problems,” according to the newspaper. Sure enough, I spotted a number of them; missing words, wrong letters, etc. Don’t worry, though; I’ve gone through the original article and submitted corrections to the Times. Perhaps by the time you read this, the corrections will have been made.
I never knew Mathilde Pincus, but it seemed to be a fitting tribute to her after she spent a lifetime doing the same for so many others.