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.


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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