Monday, 13 October 2014

Written Music

I mentioned the other day the difficulty I had been having in finding the actual written music, the score, the notes, whatever you like to call it, of a piece of music a friend has to learn to play on the piano. These days, to most people ‘Music’ means sound recordings. PCs come equipped with a folder called ‘My Music’ and if you try to throw it away it keeps reappearing. Whatever you put in it is assumed to be a sound recording, it tries to play it, and it takes some ingenuity to convince the computer that actually what you want to keep there is copies, usually in pdf, of printed music. Internet searches for music always offer recordings first, and seem surprised and confused if you try to say ‘No, I mean music, dammit, notes on paper.’ Learning to read music is no longer a standard part of people’s education, and the ability to look at a piece of music on paper and ‘see how it goes’ has become rare, which is a pity as it opens a whole world of enjoyment.

In Bach’s day, composers usually put down just the notes and little else, but nearly all modern editions of his music come with markings of phrase, tempo, dynamics etc. These are often of doubtful authority; usually just the ‘authority’ of playing traditions, which change. When, like me, one is merely an elementary piano pupil, it is as well to take the teacher’s word that, say, passages in quavers ‘should’ be played non-legato and ones in semiquavers legato. But I sometimes waste half my weekly lesson arguing with her, telling her I prefer it like this or that, and why not? I usually back down, telling myself I can play it as I like once I have learnt to play it at all.

I can’t just at the moment find an example of Bach’s original manuscripts for, say, his two-part keyboard inventions, which I am currently struggling with, but here is how he actually wrote the Kyrie from the great Mass in B minor. There’s nothing there but the notes themselves:

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