The demise of the brick-and-mortar sheet music store is one of the lesser-known but keenly felt tragedies of the late 20th century. Perhaps not quite on the scale of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, but the degradation in quality of life is nonetheless palpable, to those who are paying attention.
Once upon a time, you could walk into a great big barnlike sheet music store (Byron Hoyt in San Francisco, for instance), paw through rack upon rack, and find whatever you needed, be it ever so obscure. But finding it wasn’t even half the point. With popular works, you could compare half a dozen different editions and choose one that you liked.
Today this material — a huge slug of our cultural history — is available only online. And the people who prepare online catalogs of sheet music have neither the time, the expert knowledge, nor the motivation to provide the kind of information prospective buyers need.
Tonight I went searching for an edition of the Brahms B Major Trio, Op. 8, revised edition. I found a Dover edition of the complete Brahms trios on Amazon, with both the original and revised versions of Op. 8. It said that on the cover, that’s how I knew. But nowhere on the Amazon Web page, nor in either of the customer reviews, could I find any mention of whether the edition was strictly a piano score or whether it included the violin and cello parts.
That’s a stark example, and it’s the norm, not the exception. Amazon has a product in stock, and I’d like to buy it from them, but I can’t, because they don’t give me enough information. The reason they don’t is because they don’t give a damn about classical sheet music. It’s not a big enough or profitable enough market for them. They want to sell me a Kindle (suuure…).
Even if they ponied up the essential information, though, shopping at Amazon would be nothing like shopping at Byron Hoyt in its heyday. On Amazon I can’t leaf through the music, decide if the print is large enough to be readable, decide if I like the editor’s markings, and also (with an unfamiliar piece) decide if it’s technically within my grasp.
I buy a fair amount of cello sheet music from cellos2go.com. It’s a great site for cellists, and Ellen Gunst, who is a cellist herself, recommends products (books, cases, whatever) that she feels are superior. But most of her sheet music listings have almost no information, just a scan of the cover, the composer, author, or editor’s name, and the price. With five books of scales and arpeggios to choose from, how do you know what to buy? Answer: It’s a crap shoot.
And here’s a sonata by L. Auerbach for cello and piano. It’s $69.95. I’ve never heard of Auerbach. Am I going to pay that kind of price without looking at the music? Of course not.
The good news is, by searching the Web I was able to find a downloadable PDF of the trio, complete with the violin and cello parts. It was scanned from an 1891 Simrock edition, and while the edition was in mint condition and the scan carefully done, the PDF is kinda gray and fuzzy. But that’s okay. I’ve got the music, and it cost me nothing except the printer paper and ink.
What I don’t have, online, is the ability to browse through music that I don’t know. And that’s a real loss.