As a young man, I apprenticed with the best in the business, Arnie Arnstein. The technology I use now has certainly changed, but the standards I learned working with Arnie are still the most important part of my business. This is an article about Arnie written by Harold C. Schonberg for the New York Times. It appeared Sunday, June 4, 1978. Arnie passed away in 1989.
He Is the Dean And Da Vinci Of the Copyists
Arnold Arnstein, known to the world as Arnie, is a dapper, short, pepper-and-salt-suited man with a bristling moustache, a machine-gun style of speech and, occasionally, a high-pitched giggle like that of a girl at her first prom. Arnie is the Leonardo da Vinci of copyists. For over 50 years the most exalted names in American composition have been bringing their music to him. He looks over the scores, goes cluck-cluck, points out errors, then sets to work with his crew. Presently conductors have their nicely calligraphed, legible full scores, bassoonists and clarinetists have their parts, soloists and singers (if any) start practicing.
Right now he is working on his hundreth opera. It is Stephen Burton’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” which will have its premiere this August at Wolf Trap. Years back Arnie lost track of the number of symphonies he has “written,” the number of orchestral works and concertos and radio shows and television scores and -- he admits -- unbelievable junk that is the bread and butter of copyists. As Arnie talks about the problems of copying, one starts imagining a Dickensian setting with old-fashioned types sitting at high desks copying notes with plumed pens.
Not exactly plumed pens, perhaps. But copyists still use the old dip pens with the old kind of nibs. High-quality black ink is necessary. Transparent paper has to be used. Each note has to be shaped. Stems of notes have to be just so long; a sixteenth of an inch off in any direction mightily offends Arnie esthetically. Stems have to go up in some positions, down in others.
“You don’t copy exactly what’s in the score,” says Arnie. “Composers write their notes down the quickest way, in their kind of shorthand. You should see the mess some manuscripts are in when they arrive. We have to straighten the thing out. There are endless calligraphic rules that must be mastered. Right now there is no place for anybody to learn them except in my shop or at Juilliard, where I teach a course in copying.”
Basically a sweet soul, Arnie has all kinds of horror stories about important composers who can’t count, important conductors who can’t conduct, important instrumentalists who can’t read music. But those stories are all off the record. He’ll tell them to friends, but otherwise they’re not even for attribution. Certain maestros he calls “E-flat conductors.” They can read only the key of E flat, because the only instrument they ever learned was an E-flat instrument. One other -- and such a famous name! -- simply cannot handle a new score the first few times out. He can’t hear what’s going on; can’t tell right notes from wrong; can’t keep the rhythm. “But,” says Arnie, “when he finally does get it, I’ll say this for him, he has it in his mind forever.”
Arnie is 80 years old, looks a vodka martini straight in the eye, chomps away enthusiastically at lunch, and talks happily about the perils of the copyist’s life. “Everybody wants everything yesterday, ” he says. “Composers put everything off until the last minute. Or after the last minute. I have four or five in my regular staff. I increase them as needed. For the Bernstein Mass we had to get in 18 copyists. Bernstein’s scripts are very clear. That helped. Often manuscripts are unreadable. We may have to get the composer on the phone every half hour. ‘How come measure 126 is in three-four when the time signature is four-four?’ You have no idea how many composers, working under pressure, write notes that are not playable by the instruments that are supposed to play them.”
But Arnie is tolerant. “Everybody makes mistakes. Even I make mistakes. Once I left 16 measures out of a score. I had to clean it up overnight. That meant doing several pages over and renumbering all the other pages. What a mess!”
Yet, after all the tension and pressure, after over a half century of peering at tiny, illegible notes and copying them, Arnie does not even have to wear glasses except for close-up work. He thinks it’s in the genes. His mother lived to almost a hundred. He himself has enjoyed good health all his life.
It’s not only the matter of writing notes down. Anybody can do that. Other things enter into good copying. Cueing is very important. “Say a tuba has about a hundred measures of rest. He can’t count a hundred measures. How does he know when to come in? So we have to give him signposts: a few measures before, written in smaller script, so he will know where he is. Then there is the problem of turns. A good copyist will arrange a page so that it ends on a rest, so that the player can turn the page without having to worry about the continuation.Copyists have to keep an eye out for mistakes of the composer. Not that composers don’t know better, but they get tired; they write down silly things. The people I have worked with know me by now, and often they’ll say ‘Arnie, you fix it.’ I like that.”
The composers he has worked with? Bernstein, Menotti, Barber, Virgil Thompson, Carlisle Floyd, William Schuman, you name them. Nearly all of the major American composers have engaged Arnie, many on a regular basis. He’s not cheap. No good copyist is. A 25-minute symphonic work, with score and parts, can come close to $2,000. A three-act opera can run over $10,000. Unless a composer is as successful as the Bernsteins and Menottis, the chances are that he will never recoup the initial copying costs. It is unfair, but that is the way things work.
A superprofessional himself, Arnie is quick to acknowledge professionalism in others. Samuel Barber, he says, seldom makes a mistake. Bernstein “has eyes around the corner.” Menotti’s scores seldom have to be retouched. As for conductors, Arnie has found a few he can respect. “Lenny is one of the best score readers who ever came along.” says Arnie. “Do you remember Manuel Rosenthal? He conducted around here 20, 25 years ago, and was a wonderful technician. Otto Klemperer, oh man! We went through a score together and believe me, he heard everything.”
Arnie was born in Budapest in 1898. His family came to the United States when he was 4 years old. “My father was a butcher. So we always ate. We moved around. There was a period in St. Louis. But I was educated mostly in New York, at Stuyvesant High School and City College. Class of 1919. I graduated as a chemist. But I also took music and was a pretty good violinist.”
His violin career did not last long. One wintry day he slipped on the ice and had a triple fracture of his left elbow. After graduation he worked as a chemist.
“One day,” remembers Arnie, “I was walking down the street and I ran into the music librarian of Paramount Publix Corporation. They ran Twentieth-Century Paramount and also ran 52 weeks of musical attractions around the country. ‘Look,’ the guy said, ‘You have a musical education. Come with me.’ That was in 1925, and he gave me a job at $60 a week, not bad for that time. I walk into a big room, with maybe 40 people copying music. I looked. All my life I had trouble copying a G clef. But I learned. The boss said ‘You have music at home? Go copy it.’ So I learned by a little bit, a little bit more, a little bit more. Mostly I copied night-club music, acts arranged for combos. There were lots of movie scores, too. Those were pre-sound days.”
Around 1940 Arnie ran into Gian-Carlo Menotti. He has been Menotti’s copyist since then. His first score for him was the ballet “Sebastien.” Then came Menotti’s big hit, “The Medium.” Word got around about Arnie’s impeccable work, and soon he was deluged with assignments from the major American composers.
There are tricks to the trade. Everything has to be done in a rush -- composers always seem to be late -- and the copyist has to develop a concentration span that eliminates everything else in the world. “Yet,” says Arnie, “an experienced copyist will make surprisingly few mistakes. If he does, there is always that wonderful invention, the electric eraser.” Arnie is said to handle the eraser the way Heifetz used to handle a bow. “Things are made easier today all around by certain technologies. Composers by now know enough to write the final manuscript on transparent sheets. We immediately use those to make a copy in blue. We don’t use the Xerox or other copying machines. That’s too expensive for everybody. We knock off the transparencies in our own old-fashioned copier, give the composer his copy, give the copyists their assignments from other blue sheets. Remember, we are copyists. We do not publish, though these days some scores are published from our copies. But in regular publishing you get into engraving, and that’s another business. For a while there was talk about the musical typewriters, and we fooled around with them. But it was too slow and too expensive.”
Arnie is nothing if not methodical. He wants to do everything right. He speaks flawless French, for example. How did he get his perfect accent? “Well, I was in Paris in the early 1920s. I had high school and college French, and I couldn’t understand a word. So I asked how to learn the language. A guy who spoke perfectly told me to memorize all the words of the ‘Marseillaise’ and also memorize an act or so of a French play. That would give me basic vocabulary, he said. I did it, and it worked. In six months I was speaking so well that nobody believed I was an American.” Arnie also speaks idiomatic German and still remembers a few words of Hungarian.
“What makes a good copyist?” asked Arnie rhetorically. “He has to know music and harmony, and the ranges of the instruments, and conventional usages, and modern usages, and the new symbols, and he must have a good hand. He must know how to work under tension. I’ve seen copyists whose hands get grabbed up when they are under pressure. They get such cramps they can’t notate. You have to know and understand the egos of creative people, to know how to joke with them and push them along. Also,” said Arnie Arnstein, that tough, cynical sparrow of the New York streets, “also you have to have love for your work.” And Arnie blushed.