Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sheets Decomposing

Zarzycki Mazourka cover
Publishing music is a strange business. Trying to get hold of sheet music of a lesser-known work is tricky. If the composition is no longer protected by copyright laws (which are different here and across the Atlantic), often the best bet is to find a PDF file online, either for free or as a benefit of belonging to a "club" that specializes in scanning out-of-print and other old material. I have often wondered why it is so easy to print a book on demand (much of the giant selection of is produced this way) and have it at one's doorstep in a couple of days, yet waiting for sheet music can take forever. Early last winter I decided to search for a copy of a French piece for solo violin which I had learned soon after its publication in 1950s. I placed five orders, two domestically from businesses which advertised the work being available through them, and three from European sources. In a couple weeks I got an email from a domestic distributor, saying the composition wasn't in stock but would arrive later. One European source refused to send the four-page work to America as the publisher had a representative here. I waited and waited. Another online store over there said the sonatina was "unavailable" but in three months a copy was sent to me from London. Then, a domestic source sent me the music five months later, on the same date when the first American store informed me that the work was "out-of-print." At the end, I was the proud owner of two brand-new copies, to replace the torn original.

The French used to print music on paper high in ground wood, similar to what you would find in your Daily, just a little thicker. Oversized, the sheets would soon appear as if they had been through a great war. At first musicians used "glue paper" to fortify the page edges and rebuild corners to facilitate page turns. Later plastic tape took over but it turned yellow in a couple of years, then fell off. Publishers in other countries weren't much better, and Russian editions were even worse than the French. The Soviet system couldn't care less about copyright law and as a large number of my countrymen visited Leningrad and Moscow, a lot of "illegal" sheet music of Western composers ended up back home for almost nothing. A tourist didn't have a great selection of merchandise to choose from: sheet music and LP recordings were very popular in addition to the one liter bottle of vodka the Finnish customs would allow.

Groundwood-based paper had an advantage to more expensive pulp product where the fibers are separated chemically, the stuff in finer books and magazines. The old stuff bends more easily and even large books of music are easy to open. We have among others a collection of all the popular concertos from early 1900s  as one publication. Even the thick piano part opens up without an effort. Compare that to today's Fritz Kreisler Favorites album which won't stay open no matter what magic tricks one performs. Ivan Galamian used to get mad at me, as he insisted that I played his version of the Kreutzer Etudes: during the lesson the book wouldn't stay open. Not that I had spent too much time on the material, but it was somewhat embarrassing to have the music close itself after a few measures. He might have been hard of hearing but this was a dead giveaway. I still blame the high-quality paper…

The old scans often include images of the back cover(s) with advertisements of what the publishers thought to be important works at the time. It comes as no surprise that we have never heard of nine out of ten composers listed. Age isn't kind to composers, or authors of books for that matter. Getting a publisher never guaranteed lasting fame or success. Yet those works were widely performed at one time, which is evident from old concert programs. A composer's own favorite work didn't often match public opinion. Max Bruch was convinced that his second violin concerto was his best composition. He eventually refused to see any violinists who wanted to play for him, as they all wanted his input on the ever-popular G-minor first one. Heifetz was one of the few champions of the second concerto: perhaps his recording of it discouraged others from playing it and becoming a staple. He "ruined" the Conus and Glazounov concertos, not to mention many by lesser-known composers, by recording them so superbly. I was surprised to find a PDF file of Bruch's third violin concerto as it doesn't appear on any list. I played through it and it isn't the composer's best effort, although decent enough to deserve an occasional performance. There are a lot of treasures among the scans of long-forgotten works. A student of mine recently performed a beautiful Prayer by Henry Hadley, who had been a conductor of the local orchestra long ago. The young lady's father had discovered the old print somewhere.

An email from an online sheet music store (the physical ones have just about all disappeared) recently presented a question: What Exactly IS Urtext? Needless to say, they were having a sale on Henle Urtext Editions. The explanation they gave was somewhat vague as that title is used as a marketing gimmick, as a sign of something "better" than normal. As our library has numerous Urtext versions of the J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas, plus quite a bit of other such material, I am somewhat skeptical of these editions. Composers have always made mistakes when writing their manuscripts in ink and even many printed first versions have obvious errors in them. The wonderful short Sonata Op.1 by Karen Khachaturian has a missing accidental in the violin part in the beautiful slow movement. As much of the material is written as a canon, the piano first plays the correct version and the violinist should notice the mistake immediately. The recording by Heifetz hurts one's ears as he plays what the print says. No one had the courage to tell him he was wrong.

A slur for a string player means two different things: a bowing or a phrasing. To everyone else it is always the latter. Unless the composer was an accomplished violinist, a work cannot usually be played as indicated. We know that Bach played the violin among other instruments, but primarily he was an organist. Obviously no one takes the long slurs in Wagner or Richard Strauss as indications of bowings, although I have known a conductor who thought otherwise. Galamian published the first modern Bach edition where all dynamics are as Bach wrote them (a few echo effects) and any guidance or help to possible phrasing are left out. However, he offers us fingerings, and the slurs are not consistent with the manuscript. There is a messy copy of Bach's original at the end of the book but that is of little benefit, just more of a curiosity item. I much prefer Joachim-Moser or Flesch editions as underneath the edited version, a clear printed copy of Bach's markings is shown. A violinist can easily base his/her interpretation on the lower line but at the same time see what one of these old master fiddlers was thinking and why they made the changes they did. Starting with an unmarked edition of Bach with permanently discourage all but the brightest students, or make the teacher work overtime with his pencil.

To me any edition without fingerings or bowings would be a blessing. The more famous a violinist the editor was, the stranger the markings usually are. Most of them had been spoon-fed the works as children and they seldom gave any thought to why they used a certain fingering or bowing. Yes, David Oistrakh played a beautiful Beethoven concerto, yet his markings in that composition, and many others, are odd and defy logic. Zino Francescatti was a fabulous virtuoso and outplayed everyone else in much of the repertoire, yet he decided to alter compositions and many of his fingerings are without real purpose, other than perhaps enabling him to exhibit his incredible vibrato and "fat" sound. Fritz Kreisler was famous for never playing the markings which he published. If you examine the music carefully, you'll notice that the fourth finger indication is almost absent. He wanted to sell a lot of his compositions and arrangements, and knew that most of the potential customers had weak pinkies. Some of the more useful editions are by violinists who never made it big, or weren't child prodigies, and thus had to be more analytical.

What we need is an store for music, with print-on-demand and an option for no-frills editions without any edits. Better yet, have all the music available on touch screen display, allowing markings to be inserted and stored for printing or viewing with a similar device. This would be truly an orchestra librarian's  or a pedagogue's dream!