Friday, April 3, 2015

Sine nomine

Quite a few years back, I wrote program notes for the Kingsport Symphony. (Anyone interested in these artifacts can find the surviving series here.) This old penchant for foraging in the echoes struck me pretty hard this week, after April Fools' Day came during Holy Week this year (a fortuitous event for someone like me who treasures his copy of Tomie di Paola's Clown of God) and issued a clear call for a cinematic response from Ballet Pysanka:

(The video is only 1:58; the rest of this will be more interesting if you go ahead and watch it).

"Sine nomine" is the Latin equivalent of "anonymous." In the performance I'm wearing a Guy Fawkes mask associated with the group Anonymous, but for a title I liked the reverberations of "sine nomine," ecclesiastical in the very specific sense that they come from the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, chapter 44, which (O lovely coincidence) begins "Let us now praise famous men" but which goes on in verse 9 to praise those worthies who died without fame, i.e. "sine nomine."

But another use of "sine nomine" that is quite particular to this project is its use in library catalogs (usually in its abbreviated form, "s.n.") to show when the identity of an author or publisher is not known. The next-to-last title in the video shows what I knew when I completed the movie: the composer of the soundtrack was sine nomine, at least to me.

The music is an old recorder favorite that I dusted off recently. It comes from a collection of unaccompanied pieces edited by F. J. Giesbert and originally published in 1937 by B. Schott's Söhne, Mainz. The collection is entitled Fifteen Solos by 18th-century Composers, but nowhere are the composers' names given.

Why? Were they truly unknown? Was the publisher trying to hide something?

(Back in the mid-20th century when there was a market for recorder music, publishers seemed to want their buyers to believe that the music was actually written for recorder, when in fact it was usually an arrangement of something originally written for some other instrument(s).)

After putting the movie online I decided to try to find out who wrote the piece. Back in the old days it would've meant digging through catalogs of musical incipits--where the opening handful of notes of a piece are arranged in a searchable fashion--but now I had a multimedia universe at my disposal.

Very quickly, by searching Youtube, I identified 3 likely candidates: J. J. Quantz, J. F. Braun, and J. D. Braun. Further sleuthing ruled out the first two--although the video at 1:50 shows me in the early stages of research when I thought J. F. Braun was the guy. Now, even though I haven't seen the final evidence in the form of a scanned manuscript, I'm convinced that French composer Jean Daniel Braun wrote the music.

Braun wrote a collection of short solo pieces, Pieces sans basse pour la flute traversiere, a pdf of which is available. 

"Sans basse" means there is no continuous bass line, an ordinary feature of baroque music, which formed the basis for any added keyboard harmony. In other words, it's baroque code for "solo."

"Flute traversiere" means "transverse flute," which is the term used in the baroque period to distinguish the true flute from the recorder, which was called "flauto" or "flute douce."

A quick comparison of these pieces with the Schott collection edited by Giesbert reveals the latter to be made up entirely of Braun's Pieces sans basse, transposed to different keys to be more suitable for the alto recorder.

There remains the question of why Schott would do this. My conjecture is that the year 1937 in Mainz, Germany, with the Nazi Gestapo fully unleashed from court control, was not a time when a German publisher would want to put out a collection of music by a Frenchman. The recorder itself was völkisch, quite in favor, and in need of more music. It just had better not be music by a degenerate, epicene French guy.

Just a hunch. The next question for the movie soundtrack is how a piece without bass got a bass. I do know the answer to that.