Friday, September 9, 2016

The Joy of Engraving

There was a time in my musical life when I wanted nothing more than to know every corner of the repertoire in systematic fashion. I loved collecting complete sets of symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets on records, looking at them lining my shelf, listening while reading the score or liner notes, and imagining that some day I'd know each movement of everything that mattered. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was a time when finding something new took effort and diligence, especially if you lived in a small town in Arkansas with no classical record stores within a couple of hours.

Now that every corner of the repertoire is just a simple search away, I've come to enjoy much more the serendipitous encounter. So, for example, it would shock the younger me to know that I never did get to know all 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as well as I know Seinfeld episodes. (Incidentally, I also prefer just happening upon a random Seinfeld to choosing one on DVD). I once learned the first 12 preludes and fugues of Book I and performed them in an informal recital, but for some reason I've never wandered regularly into Book II - which means it can still surprise me!

The time when I'm most likely to open those pages is when I'm looking for prelude/postlude possibilities for Sunday morning. If no obvious chorale prelude or other hymn-based option is available, I'll often consider the more generic approach of finding a prelude in the key of the opening hymn or a postlude in the key of the closer. By definition, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier provide four options in each major and minor key. Still, most hymns tend to have no more than 2-3 sharps or flats, so that leaves a lot of well-tempered ground untrampled.

In planning for September 4, I realized our closing hymn was to be in the fairly unusual key of D-flat Major:

Technically, Bach doesn't use D-flat Major in his "cover all the keys" books, but that's because he chooses the enharmonic equivalent C-sharp Major. Basically, it's a different way of notating the exact same set of notes (at least for a keyboard instrument), though for many, the more commonly used D-flat, with its five flats, is easier to read than the seven sharps of C-sharp. Both key signatures would've been highly unusual in Bach's day (one of the reasons he created the books), and he may have enjoyed the intellectual game of pushing every note of C Major to the right. Sharp keys tend also to be associated more with music that's on the bright side. 

The C-sharp Major set from Book I is certainly very bright. The virtuosic fugue, one of Bach's giddiest creations, is one of my favorites, but I'll admit that when I learned it years ago, I was pleased to find that my Peters edition had both prelude and fugue printed in D-flat versions at the end of the book. However, neither of those pieces seemed like the postlude I was looking for (especially since getting the fugue back up to speed would be nontrivial), but I liked the fact that the more innocent-looking C-sharp Major fugue from Book II begins with the same two pitches (enharmonically) as the hymn tune above. I was away from a keyboard but chose it anyway, without playing a note or even listening to it. Bach is trustworthy that way.
As that Sunday morning approached, I was again away from home and piano, but I looked at the fugue I'd chosen a week before and grimaced at all the double-sharps and cancelled double sharps (which, by strange convention, are often printed with a natural AND a sharp next to the note to show that it's gone back to "normal"). Rather than say to myself, "I'd better start practicing," I thought, "I wonder if I can get this in D-flat Major." Well, neither of my editions had it this way, and none of the editions I could find online had flattened it, though Awadagin Pratt's recording curiously IDs it as D-flat.

With the wrong keyboard in front of me, I decided maybe I should just make my own D-flat edition on this humble Macbook. My ancient copy of Finale is only available to me on my Windows desktop, but I prefer the beautiful output of open-source Lilypond anyway, so I set to work entering the notes by name and number. 

I haven't written often about Lilypond here before, but though it does amazing things, the learning curve is steep. However, because I've been doing more and more programming anyway, the text-based interface has a certain appeal and I've slowly learned to love this way of interacting with musical ideas. I would go so far as to say that engraving music in this fairly arcane manner becomes another mode for encountering the music* itself (as opposed to the modes of listening or performing). The Lilypond experience is a bit paradoxical: the process is clunky and non-visual, but its algorithms do such a lovely job of spacing the elements of notation that the output can seem like magic. 

Actually, because I wasn't using a MIDI keyboard to enter pitches (generally a much faster approach), I chose to "cheat" by entering the music first in C Major. Although I'm just now learning that there are ways to enter pitches by scale degree, the default Lilypond input method means that a C is entered by "c" but a C-sharp is entered by "cis," a B-flat by "bes," etc, so it was much easier to "type in" the C Major version (which mostly just means ignoring the key signature, changing double-sharps to sharps, and naturals to flats). At this point, I realized that I could totally cheat and just play in C Major while turning the transpose button on our Rodgers digital organ up a step, but I wanted the tactile experience of playing as Bach might have felt it.** Plus, flat keys often sit more comfortably under the fingers. (Any pianist will tell you that D-flat Major scales are much more comfortable to play than C Major.)

Although the fugue hadn't made much of an impression on me when I listened to a few recordings, I found it thoroughly delightful to play and survived the Sunday morning postlude without too many slips. Meanwhile, the piece had slipped into my system, and I'd become intrigued by the possibility of making the Lilypond engraving look as good as possible, so I kept hacking away at it, while also starting work on the prelude.

The basic idea behind Lilypond is that it attempts to follow the principles of spacing that old-school music engravers would employ by hand. Its algorithms aren't perfect, so I've had to do some nudging here and there to get to where I am now, but the intricacies of laying out Bach's counterpoint on two staves create just the kind of challenges Lilypond is well-suited to solve. To be honest, I've never cared all that much about the editorial considerations among various editions, but I do care about elegantly laid out music which doesn't waste space. For my taste, most computer-generated modern editions use space very poorly, so one ends up with too many page turns and notes that don't really seem comfortable hanging out together. It takes time and craftsmanship (virtual or otherwise) to put notes, beams, accidentals, slurs, ties, etc. close together in ways that enhance readability.

My intention is to make my edition available on the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library (where I'd searched in vain for just such a thing). I'm pleased that the prelude and fugue each only occupy two pages, though I'll probably add larger font, three-page versions of each for those who love space to write in fingerings and phone numbers. I'll also likely upload the scanned version of the set from my old copy of Book I since that should also be easy for people to access.

I mentioned that engraving music is satisfying as a kind of artistic pursuit, but I do still enjoy playing, so it's been equally satisfying to learn these pieces while I worked, especially because playing through them is a good way to catch and fix mistakes. (I haven't yet figured out how to fix all the mistakes I make while playing!) I decided to try my hands at recording them so I could make a YouTube video of the score, and here you go:

Friend and fellow pianist blogger Erica Sipes has written and played eloquently about these pieces as part of her ongoing exploration of the entire Book II. I sent her my D-flat notation (not the recording) and she, having dutifully and appropriately learned the music in C-sharp, replied: "It's crazy how different that 'sounds' to me!!" I wrote back that, for the prelude, "I like the 'mellow' feel of D-flat," and she responded poetically, "I hear it as bright but mellow, if that makes any sense. It's like the sun behind the clouds."

This raises the fascinating question of how our musical perceptions are affected by key associations, and more generally by what we see on the page. One of the interesting truths about computer programming is that there are countless ways to write code that will produce the exact same output, but that's because the interpreter is a machine. Musical notation is a kind of programming, but we are both less reliable and, hopefully, more interesting as interpreters.*** (Another interesting difference between these types of script is that the slightest missing comma can disable an otherwise perfectly good computer program, whereas a human performer can overcome all sorts of musical notation errors.)

Beautifully engraved music can also help signal to the performer something about how a set of notes cohere. One reason I like more music per page is because I can more easily see larger shapes and structures, but I'm also convinced that the pure aesthetics of a good layout can have a positive effect. The visual becomes a part of the music for some performers. When I was searching online for information about the old Peters edition I own (with the D-flat Major appendix), I came across a message thread on in which a poster asked about finding a copy of this out-of-print score (edited by Franz Kroll). Many of the responders wondered aloud why someone would want less-than-up-to-date Bach when so many more "reputable" versions are readily available. Here was the touching response from "Marie1":
All of your suggestions sound good, but what I need is the edition that comes closest to the Kroll. I am quite elderly, have been playing from the Kroll edition for years and find it difficult to contemplate a change....
I don't even know for sure if Marie1 is using the same edition I've used and loved, but I do know the feeling. I've annoyed many violinists by preferring my old International Edition Beethoven Sonatas to the Henle Urtexts they worship, but I might as well be as comfortable as possible while wrestling with Beethoven's demands.

As for this specific prelude and fugue, I'm amazed as always at what Bach can accomplish in two pages. The prelude, which at first glance/listen seemed uninteresting to me, is incredibly satisfying to play, in part because it invites so many different approaches. I like to think I'll never play it the same way twice, though the performance above is kind of on the neutral side since I was probably trying too hard not to mess up. It resembles on the surface the famous "Ave Maria" Prelude in C from Book I, but whereas that harmonic progression/pattern is so familiar that it simply cannot surprise, I find there are dozens of unexpected twists and turns in the C-sharp/D-flat prelude. Each time I play, the "sun" Erica mentions wants to peek out from behind different clouds. Honestly, it feels less fully realized than the famous C Major, and that appeals to me more than it once would have.

The fugue is just as satisfying under the hands. Although the simple subject is treated quite playfully, with entrances of various voices piling closely upon each other, I find the satisfaction in playing Bach is in how everything works together, both musically and physically. Obviously he knew how to write counterpoint, but just as importantly, he knew how to write counterpoint for two hands in a way that is not always about independence of voices but is always about a gratifying interplay among the fingers. Charles Rosen writes:
Bach's art did not depend on hearing the different voices and separating them in the mind, but on appreciating the way what was separate on paper blended into a wonderful whole. (p. 200)
And it's just a guess, but I suspect Bach also loved the act of putting notes down on paper.

Here's a link to my "D-flat" versions in their current state. Please let me know if you find errors! Note that the PDF includes both the two- and three-page versions of prelude and fugue.

* One of the fads of current music education is to teach children to refer to sheet music as "notation" and not "the music." While it's true that squiggles on paper don't produce sound, they are music to me! 

** Actually, it seems the original version of the Book II C-sharp Prelude was in C Major (see p.2 here), so Bach himself might've just ported C Major into C-sharp. Who knows, maybe he never even played it in C-sharp?!

*** Right after playing in church, before I'd fixed some notational errors, I tweeted and uploaded a video with Garage Band guitars performing. I actually like this version a lot, but we can safely say it would sound just the same if I'd sent the pitches over in C-sharp.

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