The equanimous Mathilde Pincus

Opinion

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”.

A portion of The New York Times article about Mathilde Pincus, from April 15, 1976 (The New York Times)

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.

Comments

  1. Rinaldo

    I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Pincus once, in 1987, when I was researching an article on theater orchestration (that was never published). It was a privilege to see their offices, with vast drawers of archived music and a team of workers, but most of all the lady herself, one of a kind. Computer notation programs were just starting at that date, and I asked about that, but they all united in telling me that the software couldn’t do what they needed to do (as indeed it couldn’t, at that date). A precious memory. Thank you for this article.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Rinaldo: Thanks so much for contributing this memory! I encourage others to do the same. It’s a treat to hear your recollections.

  2. Steve Cohen

    I’m delighted to see Mathilde Pincus get some recognition and respect outside of the small world of music preparation. In the old days (way before my time) publishers like Harms or Chappell had arrangers and copyists on staff, but Chelsea Music was the first independent outfit to service all comers, shows, TV, jingles, recordings, concerts, you name it. I worked for Chelsea as a proofreader, but this was after Mathilde was gone. This was the period where copying by hand, in ink, was gradually giving way to computer copying. One of the things I miss is being able to recognize each copyist’s “hand,” which would reflect his or her personality as well as style.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Steve. Thanks for this nice recollection and bit of first-hand history. I appreciate the contribution.

    2. jay anthony gach

      Hey Steve, Interesting about being able to recognize individual copyist’s hand. More than a few times I’ve had seasoned studio musicians half-seriously ask me if the same guy/gal copied parts for all the sessions!!! LOL Session parts did have a rather “homogeneous” look to them – same paper, same pen , similar note and text penmanship, etc. Whereas orchestra parts varied considerably copyist to copyist. From time to time I dig out and refurbish old orchestra parts of mine and the distinguishing characteristic is… cigarette odor ! Many copyists chain-smoked their way thru scores and the residual smell of cigarette smoke remains on the onion skin masters. Amazing !

      1. Rinaldo

        I’m involved in research/editing/restoration of the scores of old musicals, and one of the clues we look for is indeed the different between different copyists’ hands! One has to interpret with care and caution, of course, but sometimes they provide clues about when a number was added, whether the third stand of violins was part of the original conception, and so on. (One of the amazing things back in the 1940s is that if a second copy of a string part were needed for a second stand, they would just pick up the pen and copy it out a second time.)

  3. Jay Anthony Gach

    Ah I never saw that 1976 NY TImes article on Ms. Pincus but that photo of her is exactly how she looked (and I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling her Mathilde!). Yes I did meet “Mathilde” a couple of times in her office which I believe (geez i can’t be sure it feels like so long ago) was in the old Brill building on 49th and B’dway. Must of been around 1973. I was still at music conservatory but had my sights outside of classical music and was given a recommendation by a very fine NYC pops composer and Broadway conductor Eric Knight to go see Al Miller and Mathilde Pincus. BTW I’m surprised her colleague Al Miller was not mentioned in the article. They sat in the same office as business partners would and my impression was they worked together. They were both very willing to chat and give advice to a novice like me. I remember they good-naturedly bemoaned the rise of Rock because the recording sessions seldom needed arrangers and/or copyists – the producer was king. And by that time the “work” was already moving to the West Coast which accordingly was their career advice to me – relocate to Los Angeles. Oh also “learn how to better use [my] Osmeroid pen”! (You’ll remember the osmeroid on onion skin paper and those electric erasers!? I never was any good with either.)
    Lotta water under the bridge – wish I had a better memory or had kept a diary…
    You know, the big take-away from meeting up with music copyists back then like Arnstein, and Koslow and Pinchus and Miller and Judy Goldstein (wasn’t that her last name over at Associated music?) was that the business as they knew it (and admitted) was becoming insular and in a contracting phase. What we can now do 30 years later in a 5’x5′ space would quite astound them but the requisite practical musicianship that the art requires would still be right up their alley. Thanks for the memories !

    1. Philip Rothman

      Jay, thanks for these terrific remarks! They really paint a colorful picture of the era.

    2. Steve Cohen

      Jay Anthony Gach, we must be contemporaries.

      So far as I know, Chelsea was never in the Brill Building. They started in a Chelsea brownstone (hence the name), moved to Columbus Circle later on, and again to 43rd Street near 8th Avenue, where they may still be.

      The lady who ran Associated was Judy Haring.

      Bert Kosow and Larry Abel were both upstairs from the Ed Sullivan Theater.

      Al Miller was the father of Peter Miller, who was a pioneer in computer copying. Peter’s business was taken over by Russ Anixter and Don Rice, who are still among the busiest copyists on Broadway.

  4. jay anthony gach

    Gr8 Stuff, Steve. Wonderful that you have this history at your fingertips. I left NY (indeed) USA in 1980 and didn’t return until 2001. So, I’m still left confused as to where I went to appointments with Pinchus and Miller in the early 70’s. I’m sure it wasn’t Columbus Circle. Maybe like you say 43rd and 8th. Al and Peter Miller connection, nice.
    I’m sorry, not meaning to hijack the thread – but do you know if Kosow and Abel as well copied for the Sulllivan show? I met his conductor Ray Block (tiny man) several times and got some score reading tips from him. The connection was my friend’s uncle was Sullivan’s boom mike operator!
    Ah Judy ‘Haring’ at Associated. Man, I ‘thought’ I had a good relationship with her and her staff. But I came to her with my PH.D. composition/thesis – huge monster of a orch./chorus piece written on 32 & 48 stave onion skin manuscript paper – in order to get blue line scores of it reproduced. At first she refused saying it would take too much time away from the diazo machine – “why don’t you compose for flute and piano!” ? I remember her telling me all irritated. But her guys were intrigued to run the big score paper on the machine and it turned out nicely and not terribly expensive. Oh my again sorry to run on – but you got me reminiscing…

  5. Dave Metzger

    Great piece, Philip! I also saw Jesse’s wonderful article in the NY Times and loved it. At risk of showing my age, I would think that the “enormous copying machine” might possibly have been an old ozalid/blueprint/diazo machine (which Jay alluded to in his post), which would have been appropriate to have been using in that day and age when virtually everything was copied on vellum/onionskin. I owned one myself, and they were giant (and smelly) beasts! And they did require a bit of technique to get the ‘skins matched up to the print paper, especially when dealing with 4 page parts.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Dave. Yes, could very well be! Many thanks for this comment and for reading.

  6. Lloyd Wells

    Mattie, her mom, Al Miller, Bob Creash, Eddie Sauter and I walked out of a restaurant in Detroit on cold winter night (we were in town for tryouts of “La Strada”).
    As soon as we hit the sidewalk, a young man, running at blitz speed, ran by, snatched Mattie’s large purse and kept running.
    I chased him for a block and a half, until I realized just how dangerous an act that was.
    Mattie spent the rest of the week trying to recall what all was in the purse…and canceling credit cards. She did this along with her tremendous copying schedule (the show was virtually re-written during the three weeks we were there…a rehearsal every afternoon of new material to be put in that night…it was as close as I ever got to playing “wet ink”).
    Mattie’s crew was top-notch from every angle…and she was a good gal.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Wonderful, thanks for sharing this colorful tale, Lloyd!

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