Saturday, March 19, 2011

Performing Surgery

My girlfriend was a little surprised this morning to hear me muttering something about performing surgery on my chorus music. Then she came into the kitchen, where I was at the table surrounded by staff paper, three different pens, a pencil, a ruler, my music, and a pair of scissors. "Oh! You really are performing surgery."

Indeed I was. My chorus gets its music from a variety of sources: publishers, photocopies of out-of-copyright editions, photocopies of unpublished, handwritten transcriptions (that Zelenka work a couple of years back!), and the Choral Public Domain Library. There can be issues in any of these that make reading the music a little tough for the chorister, especially the chorister with bad eyes and progressive lenses:
  • Poor print quality
  • Placement of the words
  • Placement of the musical lines
The first is presumably self-explanatory. I'll just say that the copies we have of the 19th c. Mendelssohn edition's version of "Richte mich, Gott" are weirdly unfocussed, and I'm certain that it's the original engraving that is at fault. (The look of the type and text would be familiar to anyone who has seen any 19th or early 20th c. edition of older music.)

Well, wait. Now that I look more closely, the problem might be that the original was reduced from a large-format page so that it could be photocopied onto 8 x 11 paper. This work is in eight parts, meaning that with two sets of staves of eight parts each, there are 16 lines of music on the page. Out of these, I have to follow the Alto II part. I did something I rarely do with choral music: I used a highlighter to mark the correct line of music. I didn't draw the highlighter across the page, mind you; I just marked the the G clef in each set of staves, at the start of the line. This draws my eye sufficiently.

As it happens, this edition also demonstrates the second bullet point: placement of the words. The editors of this edition chose to print the music only under the first soprano, first alto, first tenor, and first bass lines. Seconds, you're out of luck - you have to take in the words in an unaccustomed location, above the staff where your music is written, rather than below.

If you're thinking that I could write in the words.....well, I tried, with a pencil. I can't produce print small enough to fit. Remember, this edition is already reduced in size.

My solution to this problem? I got the CPDL version of the motet.

The CPLD had two editions; one of them worked a lot better than the other and that's the one I took. This edition has four lines of music to each of the Mendelssohn Edition's five, so the print is larger and much easier to read. Also, it was surely set using a music notation program; I printed it from a PDF.

The edition exhibits the third issue, of musical placement. To make the music fit on sets of four staves rather than eight, S I & II, A I & II, etc. are on the same staff. Mostly this works fine; there is no rhythmic variation between the first and second alto parts, so one set of words works fine.

In a couple of places, though, the parts cross over each other, with the second alto line moving higher than the first alto line. Once again, you have to distinguish your part from an unfamiliar location, above the nominally higher line and with the stems running in the "wrong" direction to indicate the part correctly. I solved this problem by carefully running a highlighter over my lines.

For two works though, I had to transcribe a few measures by hand, even though they are both nicely engraved, one in a CPLD edition and one printed by a publisher. Lemme tell you, this really makes me appreciate what professional copyists did in the days before Finale and Sibelius, meaning, for about 99% of music history. I don't have a Rapidograph or even a fine-line pen handy, so I used the finest-point ball point pen I could locate. 

Here are the two problems I had to solve: 

In Mendelssohn's "Denn Er hat seinen Engeln befohlen," the Alto I and II parts are on the same staff, and for a couple of measures they were so close to each other that the stems confused me. For these measures, I wrote out the Alto II part with the stems going up instead of down, omitting the Alto I part entirely. I was able to fit in the words. The musical line, when disentangled from its companion, proved to be quite simple, but I'm willing to bet I'm not the only singer who had difficulty making it come out right because the notation made it hard to see the line.

In Rheinberger's Stabat Mater, there was exactly one measure driving me crazy, and, from the sound of things, driving everyone else in the chorus crazy. It's because the edition we have is dual-language, with both Latin and English texts, and the musical rhythm has to accommodate both. Occasionally, this means breaking up a note into two shorter notes or slurring together two notes that are for two syllables in the Latin but only one syllable in English.

In this particular measure, the rhythm quarter note, dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted quarter + eighth, gets rewritten to dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted quarter + eighth. This wouldn't be so bad if the quarter note of the Latin didn't share a note-head with the first dotted eighth and if it didn't mean that there's a sixteenth note at the end of the first beat that you just don't sing if you're doing the Latin version. This also means that the first beat of the measure looks like it's either a dotted quarter note or a dotted eighth. Contradictory! So you have to sort out this visual distraction on the fly, and even after singing it many, many times, it's still confusing some people.

But not me, not any more. This is the second place where I performed surgery. I pasted one measure of rewrite with the correct original rhythms and the Latin text underlay, and now all is joy.

Now, all of this might be easier to do if, say, I had a musical notation program around. I am not going to get Sibelius or Finale, which are each around $600. I'm guessing that Finale Notepad, which costs about as much as a movie ticket, might be adequate for my annual scribbling and the occasional musical example for this blog. Is that correct? Are there inexpensive or shareware music notation programs that would work for me?


Michael said...

I don't think Finale NotePad will handle 8-part music. One of the more mid-priced programs like Finale PrintMusic or Sibelius First will probably work fine for you. For free and open source, MuseScore is getting the most acclaim overall.

Most programs these days can read and write MusicXML files so you can move music between programs. We're hoping that CPDL and other sites will offer more MusicXML files in the future, so you can do just this sort of editing no matter what program the original contributor used. You can see a full list of MusicXML software at:


Lisa Hirsch said...


But I'm talking about about replacing a few measures of the alto line only. ;-) I don't need to handle every line of an eight-part motet.

Michael said...

Right, but the limitation in NotePad is on the total number of staves are in the piece, not how many you want to edit.

Lisa Hirsch said...

To be more clear: I do not want to read in a whole motet and edit one line. I want to be able to create and print out a few measures of one part only, which I would then paste into the full piece. That is, one staff, one to three measures.

Michael said...

Sure, Finale NotePad can do that. I thought you wanted to edit just a few bars of the alto line in a score you downloaded in Finale format from CPDL.

Daniel Wolf said...


For your purposes MuseScore should be just fine; it's free and open software, WYSIWYG and easy to use. If you want, eventually, to share your output with someone with a full-service notation program, you can export MusicXML or standard midi files.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Daniel - for some reason I did not receive a notification for your comment, hence the delay in publishing it.