Don't try this on your Kindle

A New York PR agency was recently imploring me to bring to your attention an "adorable and amazing" eight year old Beethoven-playing piano prodigy. But I have a much more important subject to tackle today - underlining in books. Humanity can be divided into two groups, those who believe underlining selected passages in books is a heinous crime, and those who couldn't care less. I fall into the former category, and so, I know, do some readers. But embellishing books does have its uses, as the accompanying images show.

Shortly after his death in 1977 I bought several books from the library of Harold Rutland. Born in 1900, Rutland was a pianist, composer, BBC music producer and editor of Musical Times. He was also a lifelong friend of the composer Kaikhosru Sorabji who dedicated three works to him including the massive Fourth Symphony for solo piano, and the Fragment Written for Harold Rutland, for piano which Rutland premiered in 1927. Some of Sorabji's legendary eccentricity seems to have rubbed off on Rutland, who had the habit of sticking press cuttings into the margins of his books. Several examples can be seen here, the two above are pages from Curt Reiss' biography of Furtwängler, and the one below is from Lawrence Gilman's Toscanini and Great Music.

Harold Rutland's creative variation on book underlining has left us with several important documents. When Furtwängler died in 1954 Sir Thomas Beecham delivered a eulogy at a Festival Hall concert that was ignored by the UK press with one exception. The embellished page from Curt Reiss' Furtwängler biography seen below records what is probably the only known example of a public figure praising the Daily Mail. More substantively Rutland added documents to another book that shed new light on the dedication of Elgar's Violin Concerto - read that story here.

* Soundtrack is a work which has many instances of the pianistic equivalent of underlining - Kaikhosru Sorabji's almost four hour long Opus clavicembalisticum in the recording made by Geoffrey Douglas Madge for BIS. More on Sorabji here.

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Elaine Fine said…
I find books convenient places to stash articles, obituaries, and sometimes letters from the writer. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever paste a clipping into a book! However, if I found this book in a used book store I would probably buy it because it reflects something of a dialogue between a dedicated reader, the subject matter, and the times.

I tend to shy away from used books that are highlighted, because they were obviously used for some kind of study purpose, but a book that has been marked up can sometimes be kind of thrilling to read.

I remember looking at my father's copy of a memoir by a conductor he worked with for many years. All over the place were notes that read "not true," and "didn't happen." There's a place for underlining and commentary in works of "non fiction."

Philip Amos said…
I must second Elaine Fine's point in her last paragraph. Books on certain subjects with marginalia written by people distinguished in that field are prizes indeed. I was trying to think of an example I would pounce on like a panther, and there popped into my head the notion of any books on Beethoven owned and marked by Rene Leibowitz. His complete Beethoven symphonies, which I've owned since their issue in 1961 and have been reissued on Chesky, have splendid sound, the RPO still at its best, but most notably, passionate, intense performances at startling tempi not heard again for the best part of two decades. And so I wonder what line of thought brought him to these tempi and, as he idolized Schoenberg and studied with Webern, did they play a part in his thinking about the symphonies in general. There can be astonishing revelations in the marginalia of the sort of books Elaine and I are thinking of. There are not a few such treasures to be found, especially at auctions.

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