I must implore you at the outset to forgive my jubilation over this post and ask that you indulge my exuberance. Today we take a look at something special, something not often seen, a rarity even amongst a brand that has created its fair share of unique and uncommon goods over nearly a century of pen making. What I’m alluding to is the Pelikan music nib or musikfeder in its native tongue. For some reason, I cannot think of telling the story of how I came across this nib without the soundtrack to Frank Oz’s 1986 big screen adaptation of “Little Shop Of Horrors” running through my mind, specifically set to the tune “Da-Doo.” With your leave; So there I was, browsing around Yahoo! Auctions in Japan one day and I passed by a bunch of listings where I sometimes find weird and exotic pens ’cause you know that Pelikans are my hobby. They didn’t have anything unusual there that day so I was just about to, ya know, browse on by, when suddenly, and without warning, there was this strange Tortoiseshell Brown 400NN. It had a nib like something from another world just, you know, stuck in, among the 140s and M800s. Thank you for letting me get that out of my system. The nib was unique indeed. It had two slits and three tines with the pre-1954 Pelikan lettering below. I could hardly believe my eyes but was almost certain that I was looking at one of Pelikan’s fabled music nibs. I had to wait six days for that auction to conclude and fight hard during the last thirty minutes of bidding but, in the end, I prevailed which is great for me and good for you because it allows me to give you an up close and personal look at this seldom seen specialty nib. Of course, just for a bit of added drama, the pen got lost in the mail for a short time while on its way to me but all’s well that ends well.
Many composers have utilized fountain pens in the composition of their masterpieces. Amongst them are the likes of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), a member of “The Group of Six,” was once asked what inspired him to compose. The story goes that he pointed to his fountain pen and stated, “There, that’s my inspiration. I can’t work with a pencil.” Famed twentieth century symphonist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) also eschewed the pencil, preferring to compose much of his music with a fountain pen. Today, many of the professional scores are done via computer programs such as Sibelius or Finale. Handwritten scores or music manuscripts are less common these days and copy work (also known as music engraving) is all but a lost art. Whereas the composer is responsible for the overall vision of a piece and musicians are responsible for bringing that vision to life, the music engraver has traditionally spanned the gap between the two by translating the composer’s vision in a concise and accurate manner. In the days before computers, writing music by hand was indeed an art form. Proficiency at musical notation takes a tremendous amount of practice, analogous to how an elementary school child might learn to write their letters. Several authorities advocate learning to handwrite scores as it can facilitate creativity, improve aural skills, and allows one to better understand the strengths and limitations of the various computer software platforms out there. It may surprise you to learn that in the time before the rise of ballpoints and computers, fountain pens were not always the best or even preferred choice for such work. The music nib was an invention born out of necessity at a time when alternatives were limited.
Before the mass production of staff paper, composers would use single or double-staff rastrums, dipped in ink, and drug across the paper to create staffs. Famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky actually improved upon this concept by inventing the Stravigor, a device made of rollers that would allow him to produce staves quickly and easily. With the staves drawn, many talented artists would then use a pencil which has long been the preferred starting point for putting notes onto paper due to the extensive revision that usually occurs with the creative process. Once finalized, a pen was historically utilized to lend the work some permanence. Esterbrooks and Osmiroids were popular options in their day. Vintage music nibs manufactured by the likes of Pelikan, Montblanc, and Waterman have become the stuff of legend and are only rarely or infrequently seen in modern times. While fountain pens may not have always been the best fit for creating sheet music, for a period of time, they were one of the few options available. Those who do still compose music by hand do so with a wide variety of instruments including pencils, felt pens, sharpies, and fountain pens equipped with an assortment of nibs to name just a few. For those with the patience and an appreciation for the analog, the fountain pen can provide a nice respite from today’s digital domination and connect the composer with their work in a way that computers simply cannot replicate.
Music nibs generally share a certain set of characteristics. These include two breather holes, two slits, and three tines. I say generally because those features aren’t necessarily a requirement for a music nib and will vary by manufacturer. Regardless of construction, the specialized design of the music nib lends itself to an increased amount of flexibility and ink flow when compared with most standard nibs. That is not to say that these are meant to be ultra-flexible vis-à-vis a stenographic nib. On the contrary, a highly flexible nib would actually be counterproductive and impede the note writing process. The aim here is for the nib to demonstrate a reasonable amount of flex in order to create a varied line width while simultaneously facilitating a generous amount of ink flow when necessary. Modern day composer Jeff Peterson indicates that flex is necessary for the diacritical markings like wedge staccatos (staccatissimos), slurs, ties, fermatas, etc. used in musical notation. The tipping is best described as stubbish in quality with soft edges that allow the nib to be very forgiving, thereby facilitating quick and easy composition on staff paper. A traditional stub or an italic nib would be much less forgiving, its sharp edges digging into the paper if not held just so. You might be thinking to yourself that a modern architect nib could, in theory, achieve much of the same effect as a music nib and you would be right as far as the line width goes. It’s the unique quality of the grind here that makes the music nib sing, so to speak. Perhaps the one key difference between the music nib and an architect is that the design of the music nib is geared towards allowing for easy use at a higher angle relative to the paper. A true music nib’s edges are softened all the way around, even beyond the traditional writing surface, in order to facilitate smooth writing at high angles, a feature necessary to accommodate the special use case of writing on a music desk or stand.
Thus far, you’ve likely envisioned using a music nib much like you do a standard nib when, in fact, the proper usage is not at all what you might expect. The notion of holding the pen at an angle of about 45 to 55 degrees such that the nib’s metal body faces away from the paper goes right out the window. Pens equipped with a music nib should be gripped such that the metal body of the nib is perpendicular to the writing surface rather than parallel with it. That is to say, speaking in the terminology of sheet music, that the nib’s orientation should be parallel to the bar lines and perpendicular to the staves. The characteristics of the music nib’s design coupled with this unique hold results in a pen that can draw thin downstrokes and wider cross strokes, the opposite behavior of what you would encounter with a typical stub or italic nib. This makes it relatively easy to draw note heads, thin stems, and thick beams. With practice, quick notation can be achieved. For example, to draw a quarter note you would place the nib on the paper, start to draw it sideways (a left to right pull stroke for a right handed person), increase pressure, decrease pressure, and voilà, a perfectly formed note head could be produced. This is where the added flexibility and ink flow come into play. It should also be noted that not all music nibs are created equal with many of today’s manufactured nibs falling far short of the qualities that were historically valued in such an instrument. Today’s examples often run a bit too broad, are too stiff, have issues with ink flow, or have tipping that is not shaped properly to actually be useful for musical notation. They work great as large, wet stubs but only loosely resemble their vintage ancestors, most having forgotten their original purpose. Don’t get me wrong though, even a perfectly appointed vintage music nib doesn’t produce beautiful handwritten scores by itself. The art takes practice to master and many have simply found other solutions that are more workable day to day. Still, there is a bit of mystique surrounding the music nib that gives it a cachet not enjoyed by its two tined brethren.
With the background firmly established, we can now take a closer look at our subject. First, a word about the rarity of this nib. It is not that music nibs themselves are inherently unusual or sparse. While they tend to be a bit more uncommon due to their specialized nature, many contemporary manufacturers offer a factory option (e.g., Pilot, Sailor, Platinum, and Franklin Cristoph to name a few). What you don’t see with any kind of regularity are such nibs, modern or vintage, manufactured by Pelikan. It is possible that Pelikan’s music nib may well be one of the rarest nibs that they ever manufactured. The specifics about the numbers produced and their availability have not been at all clear. Many dedicated collectors of the brand have never even had the good fortune to encounter one. In the last decade, I have only ever seen photos of four examples and none in real life before now. Pelikans that I have seen sporting music nibs include the 100, 100N, and 400NN. This makes sense since those pens utilized nibs of the same size such that a 100N nib could be adapted to a 400. I have also seen a Pelikan music nib mounted to a 140 but that turned out to be a 400 sized nib transplanted onto a 140’s body. Examples have been documented in 14C-585 gold as well as chromium nickel (CN). I can find no mention of a music nib in any of Pelikan’s catalogs, sales literature, either volume of Schreibgeräte, nor in any of the other tomes dedicated to Pelikan lore. Wilfried Leuthold, Pelikan’s current archivist, combed the archives at my request and similarly could not find a single reference to such a nib ever being produced. The conspicuous absence of any documentation and the scarcity of known examples lead me to surmise that the music nib may well have been a special order item from the factory, perhaps created by request only when a specific client’s needs demanded it and was at no time available as part of the standard assortment. Herr Leuthold’s research supports that assumption suggesting that these were most likely only; “…produced in a very small quantity from time to time for special orders.” Manufacturers used to be a bit more flexible than what we are accustomed to today so it’s not unfathomable that someone, be it a consumer or dealer, could utilize the retail channels to request a small modification to a stock product, likely for some nominal additional fee.
Pelikan’s music nib differs from most other manufacturer’s offerings in that it retains a large breather hole in the center with two smaller breather holes from which the slits emanate located at the eleven and one o’clock positions. I had suspected that this was a clue that told us about the origin of these nibs and how they came to be manufactured. The central breather hole here is likely superfluous to the nib’s function, its presence most suggestive of this being an off the shelf blank that could have just as easily been a two tined triple broad nib as much as a music nib. If you look at some of Pelikan’s music nibs that have been seen in the wild, you will notice that the slits frequently do not meet up with the breather holes in a uniform manner. This suggest that there was likely no template or mass production, therefore Pelikan’s music nibs may well have been bespoke factory creations. If they were of routine manufacture, there likely would have been more consistency in their execution. The steel music nibs bear the typical inscription “Pelikan CN” which was in use from roughly 1939 until 1953. Regarding the 14C variants, there are three lines of script below the central breather hole reading; “Pelikan/585/14 KARAT.” That particular engraving was the third generation of design used by Pelikan, presumed to come about with the introduction of the 100N, and was in use from approximately 1937 until 1954 after which point the logo nib was introduced. This suggest that the 1940s and early 1950s were the heyday for these bespoke offerings. Since these older nibs would have pre-dated the several 400NNs they’ve been seen on by a few years, I suspect that they may have originally been made prior to 1954 in small quantities and later married to a particular pen when the need arose. These melodious nibs are seated upon the typical finned ebonite feeds in use during the 1950s and 60s. Neither the nib nor feed bear any additional stampings/engravings.
Now, for the first time ever, we are able to get as close to a firsthand account of just how these extraordinary nibs came to be manufactured as is currently possible and those narratives dovetail nicely with the accrued evidence to date. Herr Leuthold graciously reached out to his elderly father, a former employee of Pelikan himself, who in turn contacted some of his old colleagues in the nib department from days gone by. Those past employees were able to relate the story of these nibs as handed down by their predecessors. It turns out that these were indeed genuine factory produced nibs but ones which were never part of the standard assortment. They were only made on an ultra-limited basis as special order items. Production spanned many years with music nibs subsequently being produced for different models in both gold and chromium nickel variants. Each nib was finished by hand, utilizing blanks meant for their largest nib widths as a starting point. Once the blank was processed to have the large central breather hole punched and the lettering embossed, a workman would finish the remaining details by hand. First, two additional small breather holes were drilled into the material. Next, the two slits were hand cut with the assistance of special tools. The final tuning of the tipping necessary to achieve the desired effect was reportedly challenging and only entrusted to one of their most accomplished nib specialist.
You can see by way of the photos and the video included within this post (see below) that this nib adheres to most of the classic tenants of the music nib as outlined above. There is a very pleasant degree of flex and the tipping material is ground such that the nib remains forgiving at just about any angle that you wish to use it. Pelikans are well known to be generous with their ink flow but this music nib can really lay it down when called upon to do so while remaining appropriately reserved when writing with a light touch. Just what kind of line can this nib produce? When oriented correctly and utilizing a light touch, you get a thin down stroke measuring 0.4mm and a thick cross stroke measuring 0.6mm. When applying gentle pressure, the cross stroke broadens up to 1.1mm without significantly stressing the metal. Taking it to max flex, the nib can generate a line measuring 1.6mm (measurements performed on a 14C nib and may not be the same for the steel variant). Given the hand finished nature of these nibs, it’s reasonable to expect a fair amount of variability from one nib to the next. While I am no musician and won’t ever use this nib as it was intended, it remains a beautiful, wet, expressive writer when used with a more traditional grip.
Even with their imperfections, these nibs stand as a testament to the lost skills of vintage nib making. I commend the artisan who helped to produce this one and can’t help but wonder who might have subsequently used it and what, if any, works of art it helped to create. This rare gem will find a place of honor amongst my collection and remain fitted to a 400NN Tortoiseshell Brown as I found her. While most of you reading this won’t ever have an opportunity to find one of these simply due to their incredible scarcity, I would recommend that you jump at the chance should it ever present itself.
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