The role of music copyist has now almost completely disappeared.
Before the advent of computers, copyists had the important role of taking
the completed score and copying out each separate instrumental part such as
“Flute 1 & 2”, “Oboe 1 & 2”, and so on, so that each part could then be
passed to each player. Some copyists could act as proof readers, correcting the
composer’s mistakes as he copied out the parts.
Finally the completed set of individual parts were distributed to the
orchestra and all was ready to proceed.
The work of good copyists was quite beautiful to see as their handiwork
would look almost as perfect as printing. Nowadays the composer / arranger
has access to computer software (called Sibelius or Finale), on which he
writes his manuscript or arrangement. This piece of technology will produce a
perfect score and also a complete set of parts just by pressing the appropriate
set of buttons. But in those days the music copyist was an essential part of the
When the Grisbi closed, Suzy and I found a flat nearby and moved in with
our two cats. I had already found occasional work as a music copyist and for a
while I made this my principal occupation. One copyist especially deserves
mention – Ernie Lockett.
I picture a Yorkshire Tweedledum, without the school cap, balding, ears
like open taxi doors and specs, but a lovely smile. Also, very sharp and funny,
he had chosen copying, rather than playing, because he was very good at it. If
you were prepared to spend the time at this rather dull but vital job, you could
make a good living and Ernie was the best. With the best work. Films.
He’d copied for all the best film composers: Malcolm Arnold (Bridge on
the River Kwai); John Addison (Tom Jones); as well as any American
composer who was working in England, such as Dmitri Tiomkin, Miklos
Rosza or Bernard Hermann. (And if you don’t know them, you should.)
I started to work with Ernie on some very big movies, “The Fall of the
Roman Empire” was one of the first, and when from time to time he called me
it was always a big movie. Apart from this he had a small band that played for
cabarets, the odd Masonic do, and big dinner-dances. For dinner, Ern would
get out his fiddle, and it would be selections from “South Pacific” to the
sound of clattering knives and forks and heedless chatter over Ernie’s fiddle,
piano, bass and light drums.
If, at the end of a long set with a big finish, there was no response from
the diners that the maestro considered adequate, he had this way of getting
Holding the violin by each end, and raising it up like a religious offering
level with his face, he would bow forward, deeply. Upright, he would then
turn to the left, still holding the fiddle up level with the face and execute this
deep bow again, by which time the clatter would have subsided quite
noticeably. As he finally turned to the right to perform the “grand obeisance”
yet again, the first handclaps would be heard breaking out as everyone began
to get the point. When the applause died down, Ernie would announce a short
break and we would leave the stand for some refreshment.
Afterwards, he would exchange the fiddle for a clarinet and the mood
became “ballroom” with “Tea for Two” in A flat.
I watched his chutzpah admiringly as no one noticed how he was quietly
sending them up. One night we had Bob Monkhouse as the cabaret. He was
delighted with Ern’s milking of the applause.
I also had a good relationship with the orchestrations department of the
BBC, which was then at Aeolian Hall in Bond St.
In a large, partitioned, basement room lived several arrangers and their
house copyist, Bert Lally, with a fierce moustache; one of those stalwarts you
find at the back of big enterprises who make the whole thing work. One of the
arrangers I often copied for was David Francis. A very skilled musician, he
was sometimes obliged to work fast and he had worked out a system for doing
arrangements “while-u-wait”. I wonder if I can explain his method to
illustrate the sheer cheek of it. I’ll try. If you find it too technical, skip this bit
and go on.
He used a printed page of score paper. It starts at the top with staves for
flutes, and below that oboes, then clarinets or saxes and bassoon. Next, two
more lines for horns, two for trumpets, and two for trombones. Then one or
two lines for percussion (drums, tambourines, triangles, vibraphones, etc).
And next, crucially, the piano part.
After that, the lowest five lines are for the strings – first and second
violins, violas, cellos and double bass. And somewhere in the middle of all
this, a line for a soloist, usually a singer. Altogether about 26 staves. With me,
Now comes the clever stuff, for which you need to know the Italian
Expressions come sopra, meaning “same as before”, and col, meaning “as”, in
the sense of “the same as”. Then there is 8va meaning an octave up, or 8va
bassa, meaning an octave down.
David now starts writing the piano part – very full harmony, four and five
note chords in the right hand and a solid bass line in the left. When the piano
part is done, so virtually is the arrangement. Because for the flutes he writes
“col top note piano” (same as top note of piano part); for the oboe, “col flute
8ve bassa” (same as the flutes but an octave down); for the clarinets, “col 2nd
& 3rd notes piano”.
Do you begin to get the idea? The entire orchestration is simply the piano
part played by the various instruments. Though for the horns he might write
some occasional long harmony notes.
The violins are given the same piano parts as the woodwind, but at
different times, and perhaps an octave higher, or lower. And the violas too. As
for the cellos, he might leave them silent for a while – well, you don’t want to
overscore, do you?
For the brass, he might find that he actually has to write something, but
the col symbol can often be used to avoid writing any actual new notes.
The double bass will probably be “col left hand piano”. And for the first
two bars of drums he indicates the rhythm by notes written as small crosses,
then writes come sopra, in other words, “keep on doing the same thing”.
The arrangement is now finished; a two or three minute piece, done in
under an hour. All he’s actually written is the piano part, using col and come
sopra to indicate it should be played in various different combinations by all
the other instruments. But then comes his final coup de grâce, the last brilliant
touch. Over the top of the first bar of the piano part, the instruction,’Tacet
piano’. The piano won’t be playing.
Please don’t think the above was typical of the work of most arrangers. It
wasn’t. It was only used by David Francis, and then only if he was in a hurry.
Behind the staff arrangers was a whole hinterland of other arrangers and
copyists that this very busy department could call on if required. It was
serving two house orchestras – The BBC Revue Orchestra, and The BBC
Light Orchestra – plus several other bands like Victor Sylvester & his Strict
Tempo Dance Band, another band that did Old Time Dancing, and even at
times The BBC Concert Orchestra.
Nowadays this department probably doesn’t exist because the style of
what used to be called “light music” began to disappear from the mid-60s on.
First, the department moved into new quarters in Aerial House where it
slowly withered. Then it occupied quarters in the shadow of Broadcasting
House. I haven’t any idea what it is called now, though recently, there has
been a small stirring of interest in this huge area of music that was once so
I continued this sort of work for several years, my old double bass
gathering dust, although I did still play it occasionally. But in the copying
world time was money. You needed to put in the hours to make the job pay.
However I didn’t neglect to keep on composing and had by now some 90 or
more pieces published which I added to now and again by recording more
background music for libraries.
Other members of the arrangers department would also write material, and
as they were also players, would come to our sessions and play on them too.
We had Aubrey on oboe, cor anglais and heckelphone (a bass oboe); Geoff,
one of the arrangers, on clarinet and sax; David Francis on piano and organ;
another friendly publisher on drums; and me on bass. You could do quite a lot
with that, especially as all these players were also writing the material.
With David’s help, from time to time I also got a few arrangements to do.
I was still learning the strange art of orchestration, which I had started to
dabble in while in the LSO and RPO. As I have noted before, the bass is a
great position from which to hear how a composer orchestrates.