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publishing neglected string chamber music

An interview with Theo Wyatt by R H R Silvertrust (2004)

(Originally published in the Journal of the Cobbett Association)

Merton Music is a remarkable operation. It is run from one room of a London suburban house by Theo Wyatt, a retired British civil servant aged 83, with help from his wife Kitty who sets some of the titles on the computer and from a friend, Bob Horsley who helps with collating.

Its catalogue has grown from 24 titles in 1996 to 925 in 2004 [* 1300 items in 2010 PGW].

Its prices, a standard 10p. or 20¢ a page post-free, are only a fraction of commercial prices; it has a turnover approaching £20,000 a year; and it has receiving agents in Australia , Germany , Holland , Sweden and USA ..

I wanted to know how it was done; how this impressive collection of music had been put together; and whether there was scope for other music enthusiasts to take a hand in making easily available to players the enormous amount of music that is still neglected and inaccessible. So I asked:

RHRS What made you start publishing neglected string chamber music?

TEW I had been publishing recorder consort music cheaply since 1983 using a mimeograph process. I transferred that business to my daughter in 1995 wrongly interpreting a coronary by-pass operation as a signal to slow down. It was in fact a signal to speed up.

RHRS Did you follow the same policies with string music as with recorder music?

TEW With my strong anti-capitalist instincts I was always determined to defy commercial conventions. Rock-bottom prices just high enough to avoid the risk of financial loss and perhaps provide a modest supplement to my pension; no advertising; no discounts and no retail sales; no royalty payments for copyright material; and definitely no expansion beyond what one man with voluntary help could achieve in one room.

RHRS How did you assemble such a large archive and still keep prices low?

TEW This is what I find truly miraculous. I have not had to spend a penny on buying music. The originals on which the archive is based have in a few cases been gifts but in most cases freely lent.

RHRS You must have an enormous circle of generous friends? And why do you think they have been so generous?

TEW Friends have certainly helped; and in the little booklet Merton Composers I pay tribute to some of them. I think they were generous because they recognised a degree of altruism in the Merton concept and responded to it with altruism of their own. However the bulk of the archive came from two very large private collections.

The first of these was the Hawkins Library belonging to the London Chamber Music Society which runs the series of concerts formerly known as South Place concerts. There is a long article in Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey about these concerts whose history goes back to 1887. The library was the creation of Frank A. Hawkins who had been Treasurer of the concerts for many years and bequeathed the collection to South Place on his death in 1929. Martin Lincé, a former pupil of mine, is its current custodian and gave me access to it. It contains in all around 2000 works. There are 200 for piano solo, 350 for piano duet and 250 for violin and piano. I was interested primarily in the string quartets of which there were around 350. The great majority of these were obviously the standard classics, but even when I had eliminated all of these, and all those still in copyright, and all of those non-standard works available commercially, I was left with some 60 works. I am still laying the Hawkins Library under contribution and have just collected 31 piano trios, 20 piano quartets and 15 piano quintets, all unobtainable commercially, which will appear in the 2004 Merton catalogue.

There were some disappointments. There was, for example, not a single quartet by Onslow or Spohr or Vanhal or Krommer despite the vast output and enormous popularity of these composers in their own day; but the reason for this is now clear to me. Frank Hawkins was not an antiquarian collector. He acquired only what the commercial publishers made available in his lifetime, and in his lifetime none of their works was in print because in the brave new world of the emerging 20 th century they were all regarded as hopelessly old fashioned. In this respect the coverage of the Hawkins library was very similar to that of the ill-fated Chester Library.

What must impress anyone who handles Hawkins music is the extraordinary care he devoted to its preservation. Every part has its own stiff buff cover into which the pages, reinforced down the centre fold with a carefully glued fabric tape, are then stitched with stout green twine. Every set of parts has its own specially made stiff cover. And all are graced with details of the work applied by rubber stamp, which Frank obviously wielded with schoolboy enthusiasm. This does have one drawback: the original title pages, which are sometimes masterpieces of the steel engraver's art, have usually disappeared. The parts are scrupulously free of fingerings, bowings and other markings. But what also impresses is how well some of them had been used. I used to aim to test a work's attraction by playing it myself before deciding whether to put it into the catalogue. With some works this was hardly necessary - you could tell instantly from the thumb dirt on the bottom tight-hand corners that this was a well-loved work. What you could also tell from indirect evidence was that the drawers or cupboards in which Frank stored his library were only 12¼ inches deep. Everything longer that this had been guillotined, always at the top, sometimes unfortunately carrying away the page numbers and the instrument name.

I was still digesting the Hawkins bounty when I heard through friends of another hoard. This had been collected by Harry Brown, a mildly eccentric viola player referred to (behind his back) as Uncle Bulgaria from his resemblance to that Wombles character. I met him only once when asked to join a Raff octet at his house in Wandsworth. He worked for the Midland Bank and used its ledger sheets for the catalogue of his extensive collection which he kept in his damp Wandsworth cellar. In his will he bequeathed it to the Westminster Central Music Library who promptly refused the bequest. When it went for auction somebody tipped off John Humphries, a violinist, violin teacher and organiser of chamber music gatherings who succeeded in preventing its dispersal by persuading the auctioneers to sell it to him at the probate value. Having been stored for two years in a friend's garage to dry out it is now installed in purpose-built accommodation in John's house in Kent from which he kindly brings me from time to time selections to copy. There is still some way to go before I exhaust its riches. It is not quite so large as the Hawkins library - about 1500 titles - but its scope is rather broader with some Spohr and Onslow. I infer that Harry Brown visited second-hand book shops and Frank Hawkins did not. Its condition could not be more different, but at least the original covers are usually there even if tattered and disfigured by adhesive tape.

RHRS You have certainly been lucky in your contacts. Do you think anyone else could succeed in entering the DIY music publishing business? And if they did, what advice would you give them about locating material?

TEW I assembled my first 24 titles by scouring libraries and by asking friends. Since then what is really remarkable is that I have not had to approach anyone. As soon as it became generally known that I was in the publishing business people began approaching me with offers of material. Amateur chamber music is, in my view, just about the most highly developed form of social interaction, and its successful practitioners are generally very sensitive to the needs of others. I think this explains their keenness to share what they possess with as wide a public as possible. I do devoutly wish that other people would have a go at publishing because there is such a wealth of music lying asleep in libraries and private collections waiting for a Prince Charming. I would certainly encourage them and would be delighted to give them advice and support. There is plenty of hard work involved but it has kept me going to 83 and might do the same for them. Cheap prices are of the essence so it would not be sensible to start unless one had another source of income. There is plenty of room for others in the chamber music field - Merton has only scratched the surface - but there might be just as much scope in other fields such as orchestral music for schools.

RHRS What advice would you give about equipment?

TEW I started Merton Music with a mimeograph, stencil-based machine called in this country a Copyprinter. It is incredibly reliable (mine has done nearly 4 million copies without seeing a service engineer) very fast (90 A3 copies a minute) and very cheap for runs of 50 or more but useless for one-off copies. Long runs however require a great deal of storage space for the printed copies, which I was fortunate to possess but most people do not.

The alternative is the photocopier. An ordinary copier is by comparison slow, unreliable and expensive and for one-off copies requires the operator to stand over it all the time. And if the archive begins to approach Merton levels the storage of the archive can become a problem.

What I now have is what I believe is the ultimate solution - a copier/scanner/printer with automatic document feeder and duplex facilities connected to a computer. The machine will take a complete string quartet - once it is on A3 paper - and scan it into the computer in one operation without any input from the operator. The computer will then burn it on to a CD. And from the CD the machine will print a complete quartet without further operator input. So all the space needed for an operation on the Merton scale is floor space of 2ft.x 2ft. for the printer, desk space for a computer, and a rack for about 25 CD's. It would fit into a very modest bed-sit.

The commercial music publishing industry, despite - or perhaps because of - the enormous prices it charges for its products, makes no profit on them and lives by performance royalties. It cannot reasonably be expected to satisfy our needs for non-standard repertoire. If we enthusiasts are to get our hands on more of this neglected material we shall have to publish it ourselves. Anyone who decides to have a go has my backing.

See also "Merton Reprints" section of www.ourtext.co.uk