The Alpheus Music Writer

Alpheus1

For Percival it was the Holy Grail; Dr. Kimble, the one-armed man. For Ponce de Leon? To find the Fountain of Youth; for Cantor, to map the Continuum.

Me? The Alpheus Music Writer.

Alpheus3

Alpheus Music of Hollywood, California, was in part a supply store for music copyists. Prior to the desktop-publishing revolution, composers and arrangers of every sort could buy manuscript paper, ink, dip pens, straight edges, templates, and everything else a musician might need for their parts, charts, and scores. There was also a store-branded pencil called the Music Writer, reputedly a favorite among many composers and arrangers, including Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein with Alpheus Pencils©BBC 1984

In the following photo of Bernstein’s pencils (or “little soldiers” as he called them) you can see mixed in with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing stubs several Music Writers as well:

LBPencilsPhoto: Bernstein Estate

Alpheus Music would eventually close its doors, and so too the silver Music Writer slipped slowly beneath the waves. I haven’t any idea how many there might still be tucked away in boxes and desk drawers, so I feel very fortunate to have these three:

Alpheus2

As you can see, the finish isn’t very smooth and the ends of the pencils seem roughly cut. In fact the color and feel of the pencils reminds me a little of the Musgrave 100 Test Scoring Pencil, which leads me to admit that I don’t (yet) know who manufactured these pencils for Alpheus Music. But there’s a coda to this story.

A music copyist who worked for Cameo Music, Judy Green, eventually became one of the owners of Alpheus Music. By 1980 she started her own music copying company, called Judy Green Music, and offered a pencil called the Judy Green Music Writer.

JudyGreen1

Judy Green passed away in 2007, but Judy Green Music still provides music copying supplies under the aegis of All-Print U.S.A. This successor to the Alpheus pencil is a very smooth writer and has a thick lead which, again, is similar to the Musgrave 100 Test Scorer. Are they the same? I don’t know. But until Faber-Castell relents and gives my proposal for a new music pencil a try¹ (or at least lets me order a bunch for myself²) …

SonataMockUp1(This isn’t an actual product)

… pencils like the Alpheus Music Writer and the Aztec Scoremaster 101 will remain reminders of a bygone era.

Thanks to George for the Music Writers!


¹ Kidding.

² Not kidding so much.

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10 Responses to The Alpheus Music Writer

  1. I had to investigate when I first saw the image of the Blackwing and Alpheus Music Writer stubs.
    I asked Judy Green Music if what they sold was the same as the Alpheus, and I received this reply: “There were a couple of different pencils back in the Alpheus days. One had a large eraser and one was regular. The lead was the same. We carry the regular size with the same lead made by the same manufacturer.”

    I ordered some of the Judy Green Music Writers and am anxious to see if they are indeed the same as the Musgrave 100 Test Scorer, which I previously found to to be very uncomfortable to use for prolonged writing due to the sharp hex edges. For me, the lead was crumbly and they needed to be sharpened almost continuously

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    • Sean says:

      Thanks for the info, Stephen. It might just be me but the Alpheus seems a little smoother than the JG, but they are both very smooth. Also, the JG has a tendency to crumble a little just after being sharpened — but just a little, and nothing like the Test Scorer, which ended up being unusable for me. The Alpheus point hasn’t broken for me (I’m using a Carl sharpener for them).

      The JG edges are sharp but the pencil has a nice lacquer coating.

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      • The JG Music Writers came yesterday. I wish I still had a Musgrave 100 Test Scorer to compare them to but I agree with you, Sean, there is really no comparing the “crumble factor” between the two. The JG Music Writer also holds its point far longer than the Test Scorer. They both have a full hex but for some reason the JG Music Writer didn’t bother me as much as the Test Scorer, though that could be my own variance.

        The finish and appearance is quite similar to the Test Scorer; a coat of paint so thin it reveals the wood grains underneath. I’d love to compare the core to other Musgrave graphite formulations. It seems plausible the JG has the same core as the Alpheus, as Judy Green Music’s representative stated, and any difference between it and the original Alpheus is due to age or subtle changes in the formulation as many pencils experience over the years.

        In any event, the JG Music Writer IS a smooth writer as you stated, Sean. I had my wife do a blind comparison of the American Pencil Co. Venus Velvet #2, the EF Blackwing 602, the JG Music Writer and the Blaisdell Calculator 600, and she ranked them in the order I just listed. Of the four, the Venus Velvet wears faster. For me, the JG Music Writer laid down a slightly less dark line than the other three but it wasn’t so light that it was an issue.

        A very nice pencil, indeed, and boy would I love to know for sure the actual manufacturer and model.

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  2. Popsy says:

    Thank you for this nicely written story!

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  3. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the great summary! It is so appropriate that you acquired these pencils. I really like the ferrule on the Alpheus.

    Given that pencils were once made for professions as specific as train conductors, it seems amazing that we don’t know about more music pencils.

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    • Sean says:

      Thanks, Stephen.

      I agree re: music pencils. There have been some in the past, and one or two available today, but you’d think manufacturers would have done more. Like writers and artists, history has shown that musicians have been just as devoted to certain types of pencils. And while the market segment may have been comparatively small I would think it would have been consistent, taking colleges and universities into account.

      Perhaps it has something to do with marketing something as a high-quality pencil that isn’t already part of a company’s high-quality line? What I mean is, companies could market things like pencils for train conductors partly out of a sense of novelty I think, or because of some physical component (like the rings and string found on telephone and voting pencils). But a good “music pencil” might have been thought to deliver nothing more than what a good “writing pencil” could, so the companies might have thought “why not just use our Van Dyke, or Lumograph, or Castell,” etc.

      On a side note, I think there have been some stationery companies who provide music-related items that might not have consulted actual musicians (or not very many) about their products. For example, the Leuchtturm 1917 music notebook. It’s a very nice notebook but the staff lines are printed too lightly, as if they were the same as grid dots or graph lines. But staff lines aren’t guides, they are part and parcel to the written information on the page. So I wonder if or how many musicians they might have consulted. There is no accounting for taste here, and the paper is usable, but compare it to even the least expensive manuscript paper out there and you’ll see the difference: it looks like a stationer’s attempt at what they think musicians might use.

      Perhaps if some of the pencil companies had musicians-as-advocates working for them there might have been more music pencils over the decades.

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  4. Gunther says:

    Thank you for showing this pencil and for telling its story! I haven’t heard of it before. – I like your proposal for a new music pencil 🙂

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  5. Sola says:

    Thank you for this lovely, lovely story! And I second your proposal of a Faber-Castell “Sonata” pencil 😀

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  6. memm says:

    I guess Musgrave wouldn’t tell as their customers and their products are confidential. I hope you’ll be able to find out.

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