Textual Commentary in Music

My piano teacher once told me that if I could sing something, I could play it. In other words, I may not be able to play something fast or technically correct, but if I can remember it (and hear it) enough to sing it, I could fiddle around on the piano enough until I heard it. We practiced playing songs by ear (often by listening to videos and maddeningly going back to the same spot over and over until I found the right notes). But ear training was important to my development as a musician.

I confess that I’ve neglected my musical skills as a student here at MIT, but this class project posed an interesting way for me to revive them. A librarian here at the Special Collections found a manuscript by Bohuslav Martinů of a piece “Trio in D Minor” that was commissioned for the opening of Hayden Library.

The manuscript was hard to read, but I wanted to get a digital version of it. Martinů has idiosyncratic handwriting practices, as seen by an image beside of about the twenty-fourth measure. (All images courtesy of MIT Special Collections) So, when a note was ambiguous, I turned to a recording MIT had of the piece’s performance at Hayden Library’s opening. I would simply listen to the recording to elucidate the manuscript wherever it was unclear.martinu1

However, this also posed a problem: This was a draft. How was I to know that the notes would be the same or sufficiently similar that the recording would act as an authority? This required a closer scrutiny of the text. Martinů dates this manuscript to February 26 and the piece was performed in May, but we know little about Martinů’s work habits or speed. After listening to the recording, examining a published version, and reading over the manuscript, however, I hypothesize that this was a late draft. I did the digitization on the assumption that the recording was a close approximation to the manuscript. (Namely, I assumed that no changes to the melody line or harmonic changes outside of the original chord were made.)martinu2.png

For instance, in the very first measure, the last note in the violin part appears to be an A, whereas when this motif recurs in the piece, it is a G, and is so in the first measure in both the recording and the published version. Most anomalies in the text seem to be of this nature, easily confusable handwriting errors or physical deteriorations of the paper, which lends credibility to my claim that this is a late draft.

The other (paratextual) annotations Martinů made were also of interest. There were in English, in contrast to his usual French and seemed to betray foreknowledge of the music. He knew where the movements would begin and end, for instance, and he numbered the pages. I posit that these were likely a later annotation, perhaps done for the sake of the gifting of the manuscript to MIT.

Although the work of squinting through Martinů’s work was at times tedious, it was also very rewarding. It reprised my ear-training which I had so long neglected. And I did not expect to find so much textual richness in a largely musical set.


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