Count Safroni

August 1, 2019

The Victorians had a great love for exotic cultural exploration, no doubt an outgrowth of Britain’s imperial expansion all over the world. Amateur scholars and adventurers sailed off to far-flung tropical islands to observe the curious habits, mores, and rituals of the natives, whom they generally considered uncivilized savages.

safroni

Count Safroni

One such cultural explorer was the musician and author Arnold Safroni-Middleton, also known as Count Safroni. Safroni-Middleton was born in South London, England, in 1873. According to family reminiscences, based on his own accounts, he ran away to sea when he was still a boy and landed in Brisbane, Australia. He survived by playing his violin on the streets. Later, he stowed away on a ship bound for Samoa. Playing his violin allegedly saved him from being devoured by Samoan cannibals.

The somewhat more sober account of his life, according to Safroni-Middleton’s obituary, is that he went to Dulwich College and became a professional violinist who played in orchestras and as a soloist all over the world. But he did have a keen sense of adventure, and there is no doubt that he had an opportunity to steep himself in the exotica of the South Sea islands. Those experiences resulted in a number of memoirs and novels set in the South Pacific, many with examples of “native” music composed by Safroni-Middleton himself. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have posted five of these novels to Project Gutenberg, and a sixth is in the works. Several include links to audio files of Safroni-Middleton’s music.

In Sailor and Beachcomber (1915), he tells the tale of running away to Australia and fetching up in Samoa. He has romances with native girls and hobnobs with Robert Louis Stevenson, who had settled in Samoa in 1890. Ever the musician, Safroni-Middleton provides the music for a couple of native songs that he says “had the Western note in them” — they certainly do, if his transcriptions are any indication. After an interlude tramping through the Australian bush, he is off to San Francisco, where he plays the violin at a raucous (and dangerous) “high-class dancing saloon” before returning to Australia for more adventures.

The sequel, A Vagabond’s Odyssey (1916), opens with Safroni-Middleton sleeping on the floor of a derelict attic in New England, but determined to become a great violinist. After various vicissitudes (including a stint selling bug powder), wanderlust strikes him again, and he finds himself in the South Seas once more. In this book, he purports to transcribe some Samoan dances that sound suspiciously like Victorian parlor music, such as a “Tribal Waltz” that he claims was played by a “barbarian orchestra”:

Wine-Dark Seas and Tropic Skies (1918), Safroni-Middleton’s third memoir, brings us back to Sydney, Australia, where, at 16, he finds himself stranded for the fourth time. He makes the rounds of the Marquesas, Fiji, and other islands. On the way, he becomes fascinated with a young “half caste” girl, Waylao, whose mesmerizing dance Safroni-Middleton transcribes as a waltz not too different from the one in his previous book.

In yet another memoir, South Sea Foam (1920; in progress at Distributed Proofreaders), he casts himself as a “a modern Don Quixote in the southern seas.” Stranded (again) in Sydney, he heads to Samoa and the Marquesas. The time frame is a bit fuzzy, as he seems to be elaborating on some of the ground already covered in earlier memoirs, but it’s still a rollicking adventure. It features music for a lively Marquesan dance that, like his other “South Sea” music, has a distinctly Western European flavor.

Safroni-Middleton turned to fiction in Gabrielle of the Lagoon (1919), a romantic tale set in the Solomon Islands about a British adventurer (who, not surprisingly, is also a violinist) and a beautiful young “three-quarter caste” girl. Another mixed-race beauty is the love interest in the novel Sestrina (1920).

These are just a handful of Safroni-Middleton’s works. He was a prolific writer who even delved into the realm of science fiction. And he was an equally prolific composer, with a number of waltzes and marches under his belt. His best-known musical work is “Imperial Echoes,” which became famous through its use on the BBC Radio Newsreel for many years.


Songs of the West

March 1, 2018
Cornwall

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.

Caruso

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.

music

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.

Mendelssohn

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.


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