Chapter the Fifth, in which Master Williams gets a wee bit Steampunk

Once again the armchair musicologist sallies forth.

From a blog post on the New York Times web site, I learned about a fascinating crowd-sourced project of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in England. The project is called What’s the Score at the Bodleian?

It seems the library has a collection of over 4,000 different pieces of sheet music, virtually all for solo piano, published in the mid-Victorian era (circa 1865). They have never been cataloged until now. They’re asking the public to volunteer, view scans of the sheet music, and fill out characteristics of each piece for a database, to facilitate cataloging and studying the music and the history behind it.

Now in the era before radio and phonographs, people at home had to make their own entertainment. There was an insatiable market for solo piano pieces that were easy for amateur musicians to play. Obviously this meant buying a piece of sheet music and performing it on the home piano or pump organ. Nothing in this collection of the Bodleian Library’s is expected to yield any major music discoveries, on the merit of the material, but think about it: here is a trove of music that has most likely never been recorded, and never performed since the Victorian era.

After I logged in and cataloged two pieces, I got curious, and downloaded the JPEG images of one four-page score. It occurred to me that I had the tools to make a recording and present it to the world, so here goes.

The piece is called “The Favorite Galop” by one E. Vincent Smith, published by Howard & Co. in London, with no date visible anywhere.

[“Galop” is a quasi-dance rhythm that comes from the word “gallop”, and it influenced a popular compositional style at the time. The best-remembered example is Rossini’s overture from his opera William Tell, also known as the theme to the US television show The Lone Ranger.]

I can’t play piano worth anything, so I took the digital approach to Victorian music, hence the steampunk reference. On my Mac, I ran the JPEGs through Lemkesoft GraphicConverter to scale and convert them to a PDF. Then I processed the PDFs with Neuratron PhotoScore to perform OCR (optical character recognition) on the sheet music.  I had to do a considerable amount of hand-editing to correct inevitable mistakes in the OCR process. Next I took Photoscore’s output into Avid Sibelius, the world’s best music notation program, and did more cleaning up and editing for phrasing, dynamics and tempos, utilizing Sibelius’ tools for musical expression in score playback to create a less-mechanical feel. I used Modartt Pianoteq Play to play back the score, using one of their physical models of a 1922 Erard grand piano.

Now of course, all this took more time and produced inferior results than what could have been achieved by a good pianist simply sight-reading the piece and playing it on a MIDI keyboard connected to a sequencing program. But what the heck, I did it my way.

So here it is, the world premiere recording of a totally forgotten piece of music, “The Favorite Galop” by E. Vincent Smith, from somewhere in the late 19th century, realised electronically by Wheat Williams, © 2012.

Here is the full score as a PDF for your reading pleasure (13MB download).

The Favorite Galop

I’ve been in contact with Martin Holmes, Curator of Music at the Bodleian. He has a really interesting project going on. Why not log in and participate?