5.3 Buying, Borrowing, or Hiring the Material

Regardless of the nature of the ensemble, the conductor will have some involvement in sourcing the score and parts to the music that is to be rehearsed and performed. In an education setting, this might be something you have to do yourself. Most amateur choirs, orchestras, bands, and ensembles will have a librarian, often someone who also plays or sings in the group. Professional organisations will have at least one member of staff who carries out this role, in major orchestras and opera houses this can be a team of people.

One of the first questions that may arise during the programming process will probably be “how much will it cost us to perform this piece?” A large factor in this is whether the material is in the public domain and if not whether it is available to purchase or borrow from a library. If the music is still in copyright, it may only be available as rental material. While public domain material may be pretty cheap, copyright material can be expensive – perhaps prohibitively so for some organisations. 

However, there is a distinction here between orchestral and band music: often brass band or wind band material will be available for purchase even if it is in copyright and very recently written; orchestral music tends to be for hire only. There’s no particularly good reason for this, it’s just the way it is, and it is one of the reasons why orchestras tend to perform less music written by living composers than wind bands, brass bands, and choirs.

Copyright law varies in different countries, and this is not the place for a detailed exploration of the subject, but as a guide, in many countries (including the USA, European Union and the UK) a piece of music remains in copyright until the end of the calendar year which is 70 years after the composer’s death. Some territories, for example Canada and South Africa, have a life plus 50-year period. Take Richard Strauss as an example: he died in 1949 therefore his music came out of copyright in Europe at the beginning of 2020. Sibelius died in 1957 so in Canada his music is already in the public domain but in Europe, he remains in copyright until the beginning of 2028. The IMSLP website has some useful information about copyright and public domain works:

If a work is out of copyright, anyone can produce a new edition of it, but that doesn’t mean publishers are obliged to make it available for sale. An example of this are the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. The music is in the public domain, and one can buy sets of material at reasonable cost, as well as accessing it online. However, these editions are of earlier versions of the symphonies. Mahler constantly revised as he conducted the music, and those later editions – Mahler’s final word, if you like – are only available from the publishers as hire-only material. So, an orchestra performing one of these symphonies is faced with a choice of using inaccurate material at little or no cost or spending in the order of £1,000 to hire the good quality editions. I know of several orchestras who have decided to use the old editions but have the library staff mark up the changes by hand in each part. 

How can you find out about the availability of music? A very useful resource is the Encore 21 catalogue on the International Association of Music Librarians UK website. This contains listings of sets of orchestral parts held by music libraries in the UK. As such, if the piece you are looking for is listed here it is most likely available to borrow or purchase. If not, it is probably for hire only – at least according to UK and European copyright rules. 

When one considers composers such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven there are many available editions. Whilst the cost difference here between what the orchestra might have had in its library for 45 years and a new urtext edition might not be quite as stark as the Mahler example, a request for a new edition may not be looked on favourably. Daniels’ Orchestral Music Online is an indispensable resource for programming. As well as duration and instrumentation, it also lists the different publishers for any given work. 

If the conductor’s score is a different edition to the orchestra parts, there is obvious potential for practical difficulties. Rehearsal letters or figures may be inconsistent, there may or may not be measure numbers in the parts, and so on. For this reason, it is always worth checking with the orchestra what edition they plan to use, and even if you plan to use your own different edition, mark any inconsistencies in your score. There are several equally common editions of Dvorak symphonies, but some have rehearsal letters and others figures. Letter B is figure 2, figure 4 is letter D, so far so good but when you get K or L it’s easy to be wrong! 

If you are performing music that is in copyright it is highly likely that there will only be one edition, so inconsistencies are not a big problem. However, there can sometimes be problems getting hold of your own copy of the score. It might be possible to buy your own full score but not everything is available for sale, or possibly only in mini-score format. A little tip is to contact the publisher’s hire library – they will often sell you what is usually referred to as a “special print” copy. It might not be particularly cheap but if you want the score several months before the hire material is sent to the orchestra it could be your only option. Not so long ago, publishers would send perusal scores to conductors and often ‘forget’ to ask for their return, but those days are pretty much gone now. Of course, online sources are becoming more sophisticated and services like nkoda can give you electronic access to scores from a wide array of publishers.

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