The last of the music engravers

The last of the music engravers
by Nigel Scaife

Yesterday I met the last music engraver to work commercially in Britain: Victor Hope. He has very kindly given me some of his ‘boxes of music’, the tools of his trade, and an engraved plate he created especially for The Piano Shop – all of which are now treasured possessions on permanent display. It has been fascinating to learn of Vic’s career and how the art and craft of music engraving was practiced until the early 1990s when the advent of computer software for setting notation put an end to the trade.

Working life

Vic started his working life in 1956, aged 15, when he became an apprentice at the firm of P. J. Hayes. At that time there were 43 engravers in London and two in Scotland, all of whom belonged to the London Society of Music Engravers. The society was affiliated to the TUC and negotiated with music industry bosses to establish the engravers’ wages.

Vic’s apprenticeship lasted seven years. To start with he had to learn how to place notes on the stave and to cut leger lines before moving on to slurs and crescendos and diminuendos. Once the basics of engraving a plate were mastered he then had to learn to ‘pull proofs’. The first of these was the green proof which had wide borders for marking up. This was sent to the publisher who would forward it on to the composer and editor for corrections. Once all corrections were made, a ‘black proof’ was taken from the plate which was akin to a negative. Light was sent through the music on to a lithography plate. It is incredible to think that all the music published prior to 1990, or thereabouts, was engraved ‘back to front’ as it were, with the clefs coming on the right-hand side. Vic’s ‘mind map’ of music notation had to run constantly from right to left.

While Vic started out by working from 8am to 6pm from Monday to Friday, with an additional 4 hours on a Saturday paid at time and a half, there was clearly satisfaction and enjoyment in the work despite the long hours:

“Engraving a plate of music is almost akin to art. It’s a craft that gives you satisfaction because when you see a page of music which you’ve engraved in print it looks really nice. When you scrape a plate off and remove all the scribing and the burr it’s all silver and shining and the music’s all there – it’s just a great feeling to see a job well done!”

The scores

I asked Vic which piece of music had been the most challenging to engrave and without a moment’s hesitation he said Harrison Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side – a piece from the late 1960s published by Universal Edition. “It was the most unusual piece of music any of us had ever seen at the time. It was all arrows and funny lines and different instructions all over the place - and it took a long, long while to engrave!”

Vic engraved music by most of the great composers at one point or another during his career. A particularly memorable job was working on Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, a score which has something like 39 lines on a single page at some points! Then there was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers which was taken from manuscripts belonging to the British Museum: “I used to do maybe 40 plates at a time and then it was sent all over the world.” He also engraved a lot of popular music, such as Russ Conway’s music for Mills Music, and works such as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s smash-hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat . Having started on some of the Beatles’ songs, his boss, Pat Hayes, had an unfortunate disagreement with Northern Songs which lost them the lucrative contract!

Tools of the trade

To undertake such a variety of scores Vic needed a comprehensive collection of engraving tools, including a huge number of music punches of various sizes, tools to scribe the five-line staves, and boxes of letters including italic and title letters. There were nine different music sizes with wonderful names

Vic acquired many of his German-made tools from the firm of Lowe and Brydon who employed a large team of engravers and printers until they closed in the 1970s. Fortunately this was a time when Vic wanted to work as a freelance and so he was keen to buy their enormous collection of tools to use for his own business.

Vic has donated the best of his tools to Reading University and his music printing press has now found a home at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I am incredibly lucky to have some of the remaining boxes which now adorn The Piano Shop. People are amazed when they see the punches and think about what was actually involved in engraving music notation in the days before computers.

Having bought the tools in the mid 1970s Vic continued to work as an engraver for another 17 years before the trade finally died. In the last years of his career different processes were used and eventually programmes such as Finale and Sibelius took over and the last three engravers were forced to do computer work or move on to other things. Vic finished his engraving work in 1991. In Germany there were a few engravers employed by companies such as Henle for another few years but they too were inevitably forced to stop by the rise of digital technology and market conditions.

To learn more about music engraving search online for ‘music engraving and metal plates’. You’ll find there are some fascinating Youtube videos showing engraving in action. The discipline, focus and knowledge of the music engravers was quite extraordinary and in many ways they were the unsung heros of the music publishing business. It has been a real privilege and pleasure to meet the charming and self-effacing Victor Hope who can proudly claim a unique title: the last of the music engravers!


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