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  • Matt Juliano

Launching the Lazarus Music Project

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

November 22, 2020

Resurrecting lost musical compositions


Historical Communication


One of the definitive marks of humanity is the ability to have and preserve symbolic language and transmit those symbols across time. Symbolic language[1] lets us do another thing that is unique among the creatures of the earth; we can skip generations. I can find a note from 100 years ago and read it; I don't need to have learned its contents from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from the scribe.


Art, be it visual, literary, or musical, is a way to communicate across the ages, a one way beacon from the creator to those who follow. Art creates a connection. How many have read the words of Achebe or Twain and have a window into their minds, potentially more articulate than the window they have into people they actually know. [2] How many thousands or millions have those authors spoken to and how many more will they reach?


And how many artist's words will never be read?

How I got here


This project started as just a musical exercise. I have a mandola and a mandocello[3] and wanted to learn to play them. Outside of orchestral[4] music there's not many method books or transcriptions for Cello and Viola so I started looking up chamber music on imslp.org which is a web archive of public domain music. Compositions written before 1924 (as of this writing) are in the public domain in the US, meaning they are not protected by copyright and can be used or recorded without requiring permission.


I searched for "String quartets" and clicked more or less randomly on Josephus Fodor's String Quartets Op11 [5]. It didn't look too difficult but I had no idea what it sounded like. (I'm not at a level where I can look at a score and "hear" it in my minds eye, a la "Amadeus.") So I googled it looking for recordings.... and I couldn't find any. Nothing, nowhere.


In our time its so hard to conceive that a piece of music you want to hear isn't at your fingertips; I'd have to play this to find out what it sounded like.


Tears in the Rain

The fragility of the thing really struck me. That piece of music just does not exist; it is just scribbles on a piece of paper, crafted by a composer I'd never heard of. His wikipedia entry is only one paragraph. He was born in the Netherlands in 1751 and moved to St. Petersburg in 1792. And his musical voice has almost faded away, existing only as a pdf on an internet archive. In fact, I couldn't find recordings for anything he had composed.


And every year that goes by, it seems less and less likely that someone is going to perform that work, or record it. There is hope for this lost music; hell after Bach died in 1750 his music was mostly forgotten until the 1820s when Mendelssohn resurrected it. But for every Bach there are no doubt hundreds of composers whose life's work has functionally vanished, or lies dormant in some forgotten corner of the internet or some library basement.


A few more hours of poking around the archive revealed dozens and dozens of pieces across the centuries with no extant recordings.


I hate the idea that these will all fade. That we're a server crash away from losing these windows to the past. That the chain from the artist's imagination to the listeners of the future has been broken.


Seeing as I don't have the resources or connections or money to assemble a crack team of chamber musicians to record all these tenuous works, I decided to undertake it myself.

Certainly they won't all be gems, either in the composition or, more likely, in my performance but I still think that even if they aren't amazing, they have more value existing in the intended audio form than not existing.

So this is now my quest.

Who am I?

The complicating factor here is that I am absolutely not qualified to do this. I play the violin and the mandolin and read the music pretty well, but other than that my only qualification is that I care. This may be a fool's errand, and I don't know what I'll discover in the rehearsal or recording process.

To be honest I'm not even sure where to start. But if I wait until I know what I'm doing I'll never do it. So to quote Ray Bradbury, I'm going to "jump off the cliff an assemble my wings on the way down."


I'll have to learn how to read Alto and Bass clefs on the Mandola and Mandocello, get my chops up to be able to tackle the inevitable nasty passages buried in the pieces. I've never recorded orchestral music before. I don't know how to mic it. I've never recorded 10 straight minutes of melodic content, a skill I don't really need to record the rock - folk - pop music I've done so far. And for a quartet I'll have to do it four times. I'm not sure how I'm going to get the dynamics right on music I haven't heard when I'm tracking one instrument at a time, rather than all at once as a real chamber group would do. I'm not sure if I'm going to able to get that push / pull rubato feel that chamber music has.

I'm intimidated by this project. But even given that I am looking forward to hearing these pieces begin to come back to life, part by part. To hearing the components interlock as I tease them out of the page one at a time. To have them start to exist in the air again for the first time in a long, long time.

I hope that somewhere, when these pieces go online, the long dead composers get a chuckle out of it.

We pass on, but our work can live apart from us in the people who carry it after we're gone.

m

Notes:

[1] By symbolic language I mean "the use of symbols to transmit meaning" whether it's via alphabet, pictogram, hieroglyph, or musical notation.

[2] (I'm a death of the author person; I don't mean necessarily that you can do forensic history of a person's thoughts and personality from their art, but I do think that you do get a sense of the person, even if its just the sense they intended to transmit, and not the actual person beneath. You get that sense by seeing what words they use, the themes they explore, the details they focus on, the organizing principle they are capable of. Maybe that's it, you see a person's potential capabilities in their art. Did Graham Greene ever have a torrid love affair with a married woman? I have no idea but I know how he thought it would feel like.)


[3] A mandolin is a guitar crossed with a violin. It has the same strings and uses the same music. Similarly, a mandola is a guitar crossed with a viola, and a mandocello is a guitar crossed with a cello. My mandola is only slightly larger than my mandolin, but the mandocello is an acoustic guitar sized mandolin.

[4] In casual discourse "classical music" is shorthand for Orchestral music, i.e music with orchestral instruments like strings, brass, or woodwinds. In academic circles, Classical music refers to a specific timeframe, from about 1730 to 1820. So someone might casually refer to Brahms (1833-1897) as classical music, but really it's really part of the Romantic era (1800 to 1910). Same with something like Stravisnky (1882-1971), which is considered 20th Century Modern (more or less). I'm less particular about this than I am about, say people calling apes monkeys but I generally will say "Orchestral" music to avoid being imprecise to pedants. (Don't refer to apes as monkeys in front of me. I will cut you.)


[5] "Op" stands for Opus. It's a way to catalog a composers' work and is in theory chronological. i.e. Beethoven's Symphony No.1 is Op 21; his Symphony No.2 is Op 36. Not all composers have their works as Op numbers. Mozart's use K, after cataloger von Kochel.

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