Songs of the West

March 1, 2018

Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall, by William Trost Richards (1902)

Collecting folk songs became almost a craze among 19th-Century musical scholars who were concerned that the old traditional country songs and dances were dying out. Some blamed it on the Industrial Revolution: As young people from rural areas flocked to the cities, and the cities ate up surrounding rural areas, folk traditions began to disappear. So the folklorists went out among the people to hear and write down the old songs.

They had to write them down. Sound recording was not yet possible, so the folklorists took down the melodies in musical notation. Some then took it upon themselves to enhance the melodies with piano accompaniment. And then, faced with what one might call the earthiness of some of the lyrics they heard, some folklorists took it upon themselves to rewrite the lyrics.

In Songs of the West, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould did just that. In the 1880s, he traveled throughout Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England to collect songs “from the mouths of the people,” as the subtitle proclaims. But Baring-Gould apparently felt that those mouths needed to be washed out with soap, so he provided his own words.

The Introduction makes no apology for this bowdlerizing:

In giving these songs to the public, we have been scrupulous to publish the airs precisely as noted down, choosing among the variants those which commended themselves to us as the soundest. But we have not been so careful with regard to the words. These are sometimes in a fragmentary condition, or are coarse, contain double entendres, or else are mere doggerel. Accordingly, we have re-written the songs wherever it was not possible to present them in their original form.

Given the tenor of the times, Baring-Gould had no choice. The original lyrics to song No. 45, “The Mole Catcher,” for example, which Baring-Gould described as “very gross,” are admittedly on the bawdy side. But despite the censorship, Songs of the West is a valuable and entertaining collection of music that, thanks to Baring-Gould’s devotion, preserves folk traditions that might otherwise have been completely lost. He enlisted the help of three other music scholars — the Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard, F.W. Bussell, and the eminent folklorist Cecil J. Sharp (aptly referred to in the book as “C. Sharp”) — to help him take down the tunes and to render the very fine piano accompaniments. The work contains 121 songs with detailed notes about their origins and the adjustments Baring-Gould and his co-authors made to them.

Baring-Gould was himself a Devon native, born in Exeter. His church career took him to Yorkshire for a time, where he wrote the well-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In 1881, he was able to return to Devon, where he found the time to produce numerous books and articles on various subjects, but Songs of the West was his masterwork. The Songs of the West website, run by Martin Graebe, author of As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the Search for the Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall, provides an excellent review of Baring-Gould’s work on the songs.

Project Gutenberg’s version of Songs of the West is based on the fifth edition of the book, as reprinted in 1913. The HTML version features MP3 audio files of all the songs, transcribed by a DP volunteer, so you can enjoy listening to them while viewing the music.

Opera Buff

February 7, 2015

Not everyone likes opera, but when someone loves opera, it’s a deep and passionate and unending love. There’s something utterly beguiling about the marriage of music and drama that makes some people downright demented about it. I know whereof I speak; I’ve been working with a small opera company since I was 11 years old, for nearly 44 years now, and I’m familiar with every form of opera dementia—my own and that of countless others. For the love of opera, people will stand in long lines in the rain, sit in uncomfortable seats for hours, travel long distances, spend years studying it, singing it, working at it, talking about it, writing about it.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) was demented about opera, but the sheer scale of his masterpiece, The Complete Opera Book, proves that it was no ordinary labor of love.

Kobbé trained as a pianist, and took a detour to law school, but ultimately made his career as a music and drama critic for the leading newspapers and magazines of the day. In that capacity, he attended opera performances all over the world, including the 1882 premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, Germany. He put his decades of opera experience into The Complete Opera Book, published posthumously in 1919.

The book is truly a tour-de-force, covering over 200 operas in over 800 pages. Kobbé provides information about each opera’s premiere and important performances, with the leading singers’ names; a complete character list with voice types; anecdotes about the opera’s composition and early performances; analysis and criticism; a synopsis of the plot; and, as the title page boasts, “400 of the Leading Airs and Motives in Musical Notation.” The first edition also contains “One Hundred Portraits in Costume and Scenes from Opera”—fascinating historic photographs of the leading singers of the day, in character.


Enrico Caruso as Canio in I Pagliacci

Alas, Kobbé didn’t live to see his masterpiece in print. In the summer of 1918, he was indulging in his other love, sailing off the coast of Long Island in New York, when he was killed by a low-flying hydroplane. According to the New York Times account, he saw the plane coming, and had just stood up to dive to safety when the plane’s bottom boards hit him in the head.

Luckily, he had nearly completed The Complete Opera Book, and it was decided to bring it to publication soon after his death, with fellow music critic Katharine Wright editing the work and adding some operas to it. But the apparent rush to publication unfortunately left numerous errors in the first edition. Still, Kobbé’s labor of love was deservedly hailed as a “notable addition to musical literature” (Oakland Tribune, Jan. 4, 1920).

The Complete Opera Book has remained an important opera reference work since. It was revised and updated a number of times, most famously by George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, whose best-known edition, The Definitive Kobbé’s Opera Book (1987) contains over 300 operas and is now considered a classic, though it lacks the historic photographs and some of Kobbé’s original commentary. The most recent edition, The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), added some 200 additional operas, but disappointingly omits much of the detailed information and music notation contained in earlier editions, presumably to make room for those additional operas.

To my opera-demented mind, the later editions, while useful, somehow lack the charm of the original, with its frank enthusiasm (“Wagner’s genius was so supreme that, although he has been dead thirty-four years, he is still without a successor”) and its wealth of illustrations. The Distributed Proofreaders team has brought the original to life again, complete with photographs, and music that you can actually hear. Who knows, it may make an opera buff out of you.

Ten Years of Music at DP

June 17, 2014

Today Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Music Team, which has been helping to make beautiful music for Project Gutenberg e-books since June 17, 2004.


Medieval French music notation

Founded by DP volunteer David Newman, a classical singer and voice teacher who provided dozens of music-related projects to DP, the Music Team was designed to bring together DPers who wanted to preserve more music books. Thus began a vibrant community of music-lovers, musicians and non-musicians alike, who share thoughts on finding, creating, managing, proofing, formatting, post-processing, and transcribing music-related projects.

Team discussions have wrestled with big issues, like whether and how to incorporate music transcription (i.e., creating sound files from printed music) into the DP formatting rounds, what music notation software should be the DP standard, and how to handle projects consisting solely of music notation with little or no text. DPers have conducted experiments in different methods, and the creative efforts to improve the overall transcription process continue to this day.

But these aren’t the Music Team’s only accomplishments. The team has long been a clearinghouse and sounding board for Content Providers in search of feedback and volunteers to work on important music projects. Post-Processors come to the team to find volunteer transcribers who can create sound files for a vast variety of DP projects, including children’s books and even novels. Some projects might contain some simple melodies; some might have dozens of pages of orchestral music. For projects with lots of music, team members have created “distributed transcription” systems in which any DPer with any music software can participate. One example is the delightful Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a two-volume set with dozens of children’s game songs, on which several Music Team members collaborated.

Music Team members also lend their expertise to answer a wide array of music questions from DPers. A project might have some arcane bit of music notation, often found in the older texts being worked on at DP. Or there might be a question whether some odd-looking notation is, in fact, a printer error. Music transcribers often ask the team to proofread (or even “proof-listen”) to the music they’ve transcribed, for accuracy or for aesthetics.

One thing is certain: being able to hear the music in an e-book enhances the reader’s experience immeasurably. Happy Anniversary, Music Team, and thanks for the melodies!


Mendelssohn in Italy

February 3, 2013

Sometimes we DP volunteers wonder whether anyone actually reads or uses the e-books we produce. After all, with most of the world’s best-known works already posted to Project Gutenberg, nowadays we tend to labor on the somewhat obscure.


Felix Mendelssohn in 1839

But the books we produce are being read and used every day, by readers, students, teachers, scholars, and even musicians. Here’s a real-life example: Last year, my husband, an orchestra conductor, asked me to put together some program notes for one of his concerts. His idea was to have me be a sort of narrator, reading the notes to the audience before each piece. One of the pieces was to be Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, the “Italian.”

Because the notes were to be given live, I wanted to make sure they’d be especially interesting to a general audience.

Technical details about the music were not going to do the trick. With the Italian Symphony, I was in luck twice over. First, in the course of my research, I learned that it had been inspired by Mendelssohn’s first trip to Italy in 1830, when he was just 21. Second, better yet, I remembered a book then in progress at DP and since posted to PG: the Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland. I decided to take appropriate excerpts from the letters and read one before each movement of the symphony.

These exuberant letters to Mendelssohn’s parents, brother, and sisters back home in Berlin express the manifold wonders he experienced on his journey. The ruined glory of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, the stunning loveliness of the hills, the romantic palazzi and canals of Venice, all spoke to his deepest sense of beauty.

Here is young Mendelssohn, newly arrived in Venice, eagerly writing to his parents on October 10, 1830:

Italy at last! And what I have all my life considered as the greatest possible felicity is now begun, and I am basking in it.

You can hear this youthful enthusiasm in the exciting opening bars of the Italian Symphony, which he began writing on this trip. As he wrote to his sister Fanny from Rome on February 22, 1831:

I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigour, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement.

Except for the last movement, which is based on a lively Italian dance called the saltarello, there is nothing particularly Italian about the music itself. Rather, it evokes the impressions of an awestruck tourist, impressions he shared with his family in his letters home.

The stately tone of the symphony’s second movement is reflected in this letter to his parents, from Rome, November 8, 1830:

Just as Venice, with her past, reminded me of a vast monument: her crumbling modern palaces, and the perpetual remembrance of former splendour, causing sad and discordant sensations; so does the past of Rome suggest the impersonation of history; her monuments elevate the soul, inspiring solemn yet serene feelings, and it is a thought fraught with exultation that man is capable of producing creations, which, after the lapse of a thousand years, still renovate and animate others.

The third movement of the symphony, a graceful minuet, puts one in mind of Botticelli’s lovely painting, Primavera. It hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where Mendelssohn immersed himself in the glories of Italian art, as he wrote to his sisters, June 25, 1831:

I have to-day passed the whole forenoon, from ten till three, in the gallery; it was glorious!… I wandered about among the pictures, feeling so much sympathy, and such kindly emotions in gazing at them. I now first thoroughly realized the great charm of a large collection of the highest works of art. You pass from one to the other, sitting and dreaming for an hour before some picture, and then on to the next…. I could not help meditating on all these great men, so long passed away from earth, though their whole inner soul is still displayed in such lustre to us, and to all the world.

The symphony’s rushing, leaping saltarello finale may have been inspired by something like the festival Mendelssohn saw in Florence, as he described it to his sisters on June 26, 1831:

It was Midsummer’s day, and a celebrated fête was to take place in Florence the same evening…. I heard a tumult, and looking out of the window I saw crowds, both young and old, all hurrying in their holiday costumes across the bridges. I followed them to the Corso, and then to the races; afterwards to the illuminated Pergola, and last of all to a masked ball in the Goldoni Theatre…. I recalled to myself the various occurrences of the day, and the thoughts that had chased each other through my mind, and resolved to write them all to you. It is in fact a reminiscence for myself, for it may not be so suggestive to you, but it will one day be of service to me, enabling me to recall various scenes connected with fair Italy.

It was indeed of service to him. The memories and inspirations of the trip, recorded in his letters, enabled him to finish the symphony quickly upon his return to Germany, and he himself conducted the premiere in London in 1833. Although he was never entirely happy with it, it deservedly remains one of the most popular works in the symphonic repertoire.

And, thanks to DP, the audience at my husband’s concert, hearing Mendelssohn’s own words accompany his music, cheered loud and long.

Music and Some Highly Musical People

February 9, 2012

When we think of 19th-century classical music, our minds tend to turn first to the many great European composers and performers who graced the Romantic era. Americans did not really make their mark on classical music until the 20th century. And African-Americans lagged even farther behind—but it was not for lack of trying. After Emancipation, former slaves and the children of slaves participated, as composers and performers, in a rich cultural world that deserves to be studied and remembered.

In Music and Some Highly Musical People, written in 1878, James Monroe Trotter (1842-1892) brings this world to life, with biographical accounts of the notable African-American musicians of the day. Trotter explains his motive for writing the book in his Preface:

While grouping, as has here been done, the musical celebrities of a single race; while gathering from near and far these many fragments of musical history, and recording them in one book,—the writer yet earnestly disavows all motives of a distinctively clannish nature. But the haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see (at least, there are many who affect not to see) that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race, but are alike the beneficent gifts of the Creator to all his children.

James M. Trotter

James M. Trotter

Trotter himself had an interesting history. His mother was a Mississippi slave; his father was her white master. She escaped with Trotter and his brother via the Underground Railroad and settled in Ohio. Trotter became a teacher, and, during the Civil War, enlisted in the Union Army, becoming the first African-American to achieve the rank of Second Lieutenant. He later became the first African-American to be employed by the U.S. Post Office, but resigned in protest when discrimination prevented his promotion. In 1887, President Cleveland appointed Trotter to the office of Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, then the highest government position to be attained by an African-American.

In Music and Some Highly Musical People, Trotter subtly makes his point for equality through his generous portraits of a variety of musical artists. He describes in rich detail their humble beginnings, their perseverance in spite of poverty and prejudice, and their successes. Many of these musicians found a more welcoming home in Europe. The composer Lucien Lambert, for example, “grew restive under the restraints, that, on account of his complexion, were thrown around him in New Orleans. He longed to breathe the air of a free country, where he might have an equal chance with all others to develop his powers: and so, after a while, he went to France; and, continuing his studies in Paris under the best masters of the art, he rapidly attained to great skill in performance and in composition.”

A delightful feature of Trotter’s book is an Appendix containing 13 lovely compositions by some of the composers featured in the text. In Project Gutenberg’s edition, you can hear the music for each piece by clicking on the [Listen] link in the HTML version, and the pieces can be printed out as PDF sheet music.

Distributed Proofreaders posted this book to Project Gutenberg in celebration of Black History Month 2009.

Child’s Own Books

January 13, 2011

Book coverUsually, it is easier to develop short books for Project Gutenberg than it is to develop longer books, but sometimes short books can pose their own intellectual challenges. One such series of short books is the “CHILD’S OWN BOOK of Great Musicians” series (1915) by Thomas Tapper. These books have a couple of pages of illustrations so that the child can cut and paste those illustrations into the appropriate places to make a book and other places where the child can write a story about the musician.

Recently, we posted four books from this series. One book was on Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach: The story of the boy who sang in the streets). Another was on Haydn (Franz Joseph Haydn: The Story of the Choir Boy who became a Great Composer). Still another was on Mozart (Mozart: The story of a little boy and his sister who gave concerts). The fourth was on Beethoven (Beethoven: The story of a little boy who was forced to practice).

In each of these books, we produced an HTML file that shows what the finished workbook looks like, and a MIDI file that corresponded to an illustration of sheet music in the book (e.g., this minuet by Mozart). The MIDI files were produced by the DP Music Team.

The Mozart book project and the Beethoven book project have something that the other two book projects do not: a PDF file that shows what the workbook probably looked like before being finished, and that PDF file can be printed out to make a workbook that a child can fill in, just like the books sold almost a hundred years ago. Creating that PDF file was an interesting and challenging experience. The reason why the Mozart book and the Beethoven book project have a PDF and the others do not, is that these projects differ from the other two in that they had the two sheets of illustrations intact.

All in all, it has been an interesting challenge, especially the production of the PDF file, which was created in Microsoft Word. I learned a lot from it. Still, I am looking forward to working with longer, less challenging books.

Principles of Orchestration, by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

October 6, 2010

In 1905, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a prominent Russian composer and a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. When the 1905 Russian Revolution brought student demonstrations to the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov was assigned to a committee charged with quelling the unrest. Instead, he sided with the students, declaring that they had the right to demonstrate. As a result, he was fired, and performances of his works were banned. But such was his reputation as a composer that the ban received national press attention, and a national outcry ensued. The ban was soon lifted, and Rimsky-Korsakov got his professorship back. He retired the following year, and died in 1908, before he could complete his masterpiece of musicology, Principles of Orchestration.

Rimsky-Korsakov is probably best known today for his magical Scheherazade suite, but his output included 15 operas and numerous other orchestral works. Incredibly, Rimsky-Korsakov had relatively little formal training in music. While preparing for a career in the Imperial Russian Navy, he took piano lessons, which he disliked, but his teacher recognized Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical talent and urged him to learn composition. Rimsky-Korsakov was entranced. By the time he was 27, he was a professor of composition and orchestration at the Conservatory — a part-time job, as he was still on active duty with the navy.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s years of teaching and practicing orchestral composition — as well as his membership in “The Five” (with fellow composers Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev, and Cui) — gave him a keen sense of the power of orchestration. He became a master of color, texture, and mood, even though he knew little about music theory. He continued to teach himself as he went along, and ultimately his experience as a teacher made him, as he put it, the Conservatory’s best pupil. His desire to share what he had learned led him to begin writing Principles of Orchestration in 1873.

At his death 35 years later, it was still incomplete. At times, his attention was focused on composition, health problems, and family tragedies, and he laid the draft aside. Other times, he had crises of confidence, believing that the subject was too massive for him to treat successfully. Luckily, he left copious drafts and notes, and his protégé and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, was able to cobble them together into an invaluable treatise, first published in English in 1922, that remains an essential reference for composers and orchestrators.

The main text in Volume I is relatively brief — just 152 pages in the English translation, with demonstrative music snippets throughout — but Volume II contains over 300 orchestral examples drawn from a wide variety of Rimsky-Korsakov’s works. These beautifully demonstrate his fundamental belief that “good orchestration means proper handling of parts.” He advocated simplicity in scoring for individual instruments, which, when artfully combined, would result in “brilliance and imaginative quality in orchestral tone coloring.”

The version of Principles of Orchestration that we produced at DP tries to bring that quality to life with mp3 sound files linked to the orchestral examples. These were transcribed by hand with music notation software that employs actual instrument sounds. While no computer-produced sound can ever replace the warmth of actual human performance, it is hoped that these sound files will give the reader at least a glimpse into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own brilliance and imagination.

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