The full score of Miroslav Snrka’s opera “South Pole,” which premiered this winter at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, is 1,000 pages long. Each of its two volumes weighs over eight pounds. The parts for 77 unique voices add up to close to 3,000 pages.   

Every composer knows how frustrating and time-consuming the preparation of performance materials—even on a much smaller scale—can be. And every performer knows how important a well-prepared, clear, exact score and set of parts are for efficient rehearsals and successful concerts.

So who prepares the music for gigantic projects such a brand new opera? “South Pole” was the work of a small music engraving firm in Krakow, Poland, called Studio Orfeo. Major publishers often turn to companies in Poland, where a favorable exchange rate and a lower cost of living allow them to hire engravers who can deliver high-quality materials for less than Western European or North American counterparts. Music engraving is also a highly-skilled yet stressful job, with its practitioners working long hours under intense pressure.

In 2013, I had an interview for an internship with a Berlin-based contemporary music publishing house, and I was informed that while interns would be responsible for ensuring the accuracy of scores and realizing composers’ sketches, Polish music engravers would do the actual entry and preparation of the materials. It is not a secret that publishers work with outside firms: for example, Bärenreiter, which publishes “South Pole,” describes its editorial department as working in “close liaison with the production, legal and sales departments as well as with external companies in the areas of layout, setting and printing.” And it is of course understandable that music publishers, like all companies, attempt to cut costs while maintaining quality standards.

Polish music engravers know that they are often chosen for their lower prices. In the fall of 2015, we emailed a freelance engraver named Krzysztof Dombek, asking if he was aware that companies came to Poland looking to set scores for less. He answered with a sad-smiley emoticon, writing, “Of course it’s cheaper. If you look to the East, the price for work is getting lower, but the quality is too. In Poland we have a compromise. The quality is acceptable, cost of life lower than in Berlin…”

Piotr Kołodziej.
Piotr Kołodziej.

The engraver for “South Pole,” Piotr Kołodziej, agreed, telling us in an interview,  “Hourly wages are lower here, and we are cheaper than Western European engravers. Though the difference isn’t as big as it was 10 years ago, the standard of living is rising here too. …The cost of that is cheaper with us, but without sacrificing on quality! That’s why they come to us with mammoth projects like ‘South Pole.’ ”

Dombek works two other jobs in addition to music engraving. He wrote: “Engraving is one of three jobs I do—yes, we are poorly payed in Poland so it is a must. First of all I am a cellist working in a symphony orchestra. Secondly I am the main librarian here at the Philharmonic and Opera. If there is time I can do some engraving for someone else. We can say two hours a day. Sometimes more.”

Kołodziej works in music engraving full time. That can lead to extreme schedules, however. “In advance of a production like ‘South Pole,’ we sometimes work up to 120 hours per week,” he said.

But what is the actual work of music engraving like? Besides the long hours at the computer, it requires an ability to get along with all the parties involved in a production and a unique musical and technical skill set.

The interaction between publishers and external engravers varies from friendly to somewhat tense. “Communication between the editors, the proofreaders, the composer and the engraver has to work, that’s the central component,” Kołodziej said. “For this production, the trio of composer Miroslav Srnka, proofreader Michael Töpel, from Bärenreiter, and me, worked together really well, under a lot of time pressure. Miroslav gave us the score later than planned, that’s why we were in such a hurry. Usually that’s when things get tense, nervous, because you can’t reschedule the premiere. After the premiere I saw him laugh—but two or three months beforehand things were looking pretty different,” he added, laughing as well.

To be a music engraver takes a deep knowledge of music notation, both in the abstract and in practice; skill with computers; and an understanding of foreign languages, typography, and style. It also isn’t commonly taught as a profession: Kołodziej has a background in music education, but familiarized himself with most of the details of how to properly engrave a score on his own, beginning with complex early music notation. “One needs to know why the design of a bar of three-four is different than a bar of six-eight,” he said. Dombek put it succinctly: “A music engraver must be a geek and musician in one…I know very few such people.”

Unlike a film, in which every single person involved gets named at some point in the credits, an opera doesn’t offer a role call for the hundreds of people whose invisible jobs make its performance possible. The music engraver is one of these jobs.

In fact, since publishers don’t make a point of listing the external companies they work with, the houses often receive all of the credit (and blame, to be fair) for their scores. They guarantee the accuracy and quality standards of the materials, but music engravers deserve recognition for turning composers’ ideas into playable scores and parts. In addition, it seems likely that the particular pressure on Polish engravers to deliver materials as well and as quickly as their competitors, but for less money, has its effect on their quality of life.

Kołodziej’s workstation.
Kołodziej’s workstation.

Kołodziej told us that he of course understands that the composer, the conductor, and the orchestra are the center of attention in any performance. But, he said, “When you’ve worked the fourth weekend in a row, and you don’t get the feeling that it’s appreciated—instead that maybe you’re just not working fast enough—that’s frustrating.” In the process of working on the opera, he threw two computer keyboards out the window and broke another MIDI keyboard out of frustration.

We asked him if he ended up attending a performance of the opera. “Bärenreiter invited me, but after preparing the score I was so tired that I had to excuse myself: seven months of work, weeks of too little sleep, [day and night] shifts,” he answered. “I wanted to spend time with my children and had to save my marriage, which suffered a lot due to my workload. I didn’t want to become a victim of this expedition to the ‘South Pole.’ ” ¶

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...