Sunday, March 08, 2009

Missing Notes

Every musician knows how difficult, and also expensive, it is to get hold of sheet music these days. Major cities may have a music store with some standard literature in stock but if one is after something rarer, mail order is generally the obvious solution. Another option is a public or university library and the help of a copy machine, illegal as it may be for works still under copyright. may be able to send a book to your door in a day or two but getting hold of a few sheets of music published overseas may mean a waiting period of weeks or even months. Much is simply impossible to obtain. I have three all-in-ones, the largest of which handles 11 by 17 inches, for the out-of-print and fragile pieces. Sheet music is seldom letter sized and especially older copies from early 1900s are gigantic in size.

To someone teaching music the availability problem is even more acute. I generally recommend getting all available CD Sheet Music discs, including orchestra repertoire for those taking auditions or interested in having a clean copy. Granted, many of the scans have mistakes and resemble old Kalmus editions, but they are convenient and priceless when a student needs a quick copy. And the CDs are surprisingly affordable and a good backup even when one owns the actual printed version.

Publishers are not necessarily honest folks. The popular Barbara Barber Solos for Young Violinists series had five pages missing in volume 6 until recently, as the Vivaldi-Respighi Sonata in D was in her audio recording but not in the printed form, probably stemming from copyright issues. Then the composition all of a sudden showed up in new shipments. Surely all the old stock was returned to the publisher so that every new purchase would include the work. Wrong. Except for a few online sources every sheet music dealer was trying to get rid of their old stock even if the buyer had specifically requested that the newest edition be sent. Another example: all the recent copies of the "other" Barber, Samuel B's Violin Concerto have notes missing on the next to the last page in the solo part. There must have been a piece of paper stuck on the plate or during the digitizing process as the identical fault appears in every copy. The publisher surely must know of this defect but doesn't have enough self-respect to pull back the edition and reissue correct parts. I am tired of writing in the missing notes after having done so too many times. Now I have a stack of copies of the page to give out, to be glued or taped over the faulty page.

That Samuel Barber concerto is an interesting composition. As it is to this day rather unknown in Europe, I didn't grow up playing or even listening to it. Yet it is a wonderfully beautiful piece of music, especially the two first movements which the composer intended as the entire work. The perpetual motion last movement was added later as violinists refused to perform a concerto lacking fireworks for a standing ovation. In my opinion the work makes an ideal concerto for a student to learn. The first two movements are technically rather easy, yet full of unexpected harmonies and thus good for intonation. The second movement calls for an advanced bow control and vibrato to sound the way it ought to. And the add-on last movement is really not that difficult, more like an etude. Yes, there are four or five nastier passages in it, but all in all a good student will learn it quickly. As a matter of fact, the Barber concerto is one of the few works where the accompaniment is harder to pull off than the solo part. Or perhaps I have had the misfortune of having played the orchestra part with conductors that haven't been up to the task. Accompanying is an art form of its own, after all.

Teaching gives an instrumentalist an opportunity to revisit old friends. I have recently enjoyed helping someone with Wieniawski's First Concerto in F sharp minor. I remember the time I had to learn it in my teens. My teacher told me that there were two concertos in that key, both having the reputation of being the most difficult ever composed, and he wanted me to learn and perform each of them. The other one was by Ernst who probably wrote his own first, and Wieniawski decided to answer with a work of equal difficulty. I can't tell which is harder. Ernst seems totally impossible at times but Wieniawski is longer and has three movements, although the slow one is short and by no means as well developed as the gorgeous Romance of his Second Concerto. The latter is as beautiful as his L├ęgende which was written after Isabella Hampton's parents wouldn't let him marry their daughter. After hearing the piece they quickly changed their minds and Wieniawski got the young woman he loved. I have a habit of asking a student to play scales in the same key as the concerto or other major composition he/she is working on. F sharp minor is about as difficult in this respect as it gets, especially when both melodic and harmonic varieties are included. Only when played in sixths does the key become "easy".

When growing up the Sibelius Violin Concerto was heard in my home country ad nauseam and I refused to perform it then, but of course had to learn the music. It has taken me decades to appreciate the work but, as a bonus, I don't have someone else's forced interpretation weighing me down when teaching it to students today. Having been away from Finland for so long has taught me to appreciate the famous composer's music from a new perspective. People here don't care for it and the few attempts of performing a symphony of his by an orchestra or two have resulted in failures, by both the interpretation and the audience reaction. Concluding a program with his Fifth is the only time when a conductor didn't have to return for a second bow in my memory.

For a person who dislikes classical music I seem to be surprisingly fond of it, at least when I get to pass my knowledge of Prokofiev's First or the Glazounov Concerto onto others. Even the old war horses, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and others, don't appear half bad. Perhaps I'm just getting old and soft in my head and/or heart.

illustration by Joseph Farris/