Sunday, August 2, 2009

“Life is like a piano...

what you get out of it depends on how you play it.”
When I was little, we lived with my Grandparents, and they had a small upright piano in the living room that fascinated me. I always wanted to learn to play, but my mother, who had been forced into music lessons, did not want to have anything to do with anything musical. I tried to learn on my own, but the notes simply looked like stick figures with big feet with some waving flags. The piano bench held pages of tunes on paper, and I am still fascinated by sheet music despite its still being piano stick people!
So, the stack of sheet music caught my eye. I still cannot read music, but I love to look at the graphics, and I am always intrigued by the titles. They always seem to be stories waiting to be written.

Music manuscripts were originally done by hand with the Catholic monks and priests transcribing liturgical music. The mid-15th century brought music printing into existence. You can imagine the logistical problems of lining up the notes and musical decorations! The father of modern music printing was Ottaviano Petrucci who flourished to a twenty-year monopoly of printed music in Venice during the 16th century. (Each week I have to pause to reflect on how things really do not change!)Petrucci used a triple-impression method of printing music. The first impression was the staff lines, the second the words, and the third the notes, making it time-consuming and expensive.
By 1520, an Englishman, John Rastell, had developed a one stage process, and Queen Elizabeth I gave him the monopoly. Henry VIII created The licensing Act of 1662 requiring the printer of every item to print on it a certificate of the licensor, stating that it contained no writing "contrary to the Christian faith, or the doctrine or discipline of the church of England against the state and government of the realm, or contrary to good life or good manners, or otherwise". Can you say "tax?"

But, this does bring us to the copyright laws that have impacted our new Ipod and Kindle worlds. Our Congress passed federal copyright laws in 1789, but they did not include music. Eventually international copyright laws were adopted.

In the 19th century the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. It is said that after the American Civil War, over 25,000 new pianos a year were sold and by 1887 over 500,000 youths were studying piano. Clearly, with so many homes having pianos, the demand for sheet music was tremendous. In fact, sales in the millions for sheet music was not unheard of and according to some sources, by 1910, sales of sheet music had reached thirty million copies per year!

In the United States, New York City-based publishers and composers dominating the industry were known as "Tin Pan Alley". (The constant erratic piano playing heard along that stretch sounded like tin pans banging together.)

"Song pluggers" were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. George Gershwin was one of the more famous pluggers. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Of course, you also have the artists who illustrated these tidbits of tunes.

In the early 20th century the phonograph and recorded music grew greatly in importance. When the radio gained status in 1920s, sheet music publishers lost their markets, and the record industry eventually replaced the sheet music publishers as the music industry's largest force.

Although sheet music has been replaced by computerized song lyrics and downloads, perhaps the "song pluggers" still exist for as President Harry S. Truman said,

“My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference.”


Just a bed of roses said...

You wrote this so cleverly, had no idea about most of this. Very interesting and thanks for the research on beautiful sheet music.
They really are little paper treasures.
Love how you called the notes stick figures with flags...funny! said...

Did you ever learn to play the piano? You could do it now, it sounds like you have quit a passion for music.

Patricia said...

Glad my piano playing son is not home to see this. He would have me on the road to gather up the music! I don't know how you do this week after week, but another great history lesson. I never knew any of this!
Patricia Rose-A Potpourri of Fabric, Fragrance and Findings