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.

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6 thoughts on “Bull Sheet

  1. I must say amen. The last time I went to “Byron Hoyt” it had moved, and what was left of it sucked. That old store, an entire floor, was long gone….

    Must ask, though: Have you ever seen an edition of the Brahms trios (or any trios) that were just the piano part? Or did you mean a short score? I had to find some Faure (cello and piano) recently, and it was hard. Did find what I needed, though. Amazon is not the best place for music scores. I have to check, though, to remind me of where I have been buying scores for the last two years. I’ll let you know once I double-check it.

    CDs are the same. I subscribe to two (the only two good) classical music magazines, and find out about stuff there; but, I do miss Tower and Virgin, because I liked to look for those things about which I did not know.

    Oh well…. We cope, somehow.

    1. Well, the only Dover editions I have are just piano volumes, so I really don’t know how they handle this type of thing. You’d think it would include the parts, and it probably does. But the whole process has turned into guesswork.

  2. Not as good as browsing the store, but have you looked at sheetmusicplus.com lately? Most of their scores now have a few scanned pages for you to look at, and the “browsability” is improving, with a larger variety of labels to categorize pieces in different possible ways.

    1. I had to check out the Auerbach. No, smp didn’t have a scan of the music, but they did have the front cover. 24 Preludes with postludes for violoncello and piano (exempla nova) by Lera Auerbach. Searching for Lera Auerbach preludes cello landed me a review in the Washington Post. Lera Auerbach has a website, http://www.leraauerbach.com, which includes a list of her compositions. I see several for cello and piano, and darn, no scores but a number of them, including the preludes have links to mp3s.

      OK! Browsing in the 21st century!

    2. Hmm. When I drill down to Brahms at sheetmusicplus, I find a list of categories — brass, folk, guitar, other, percussion, piano and keyboard, strings, vocal, and woodwinds. The five items in the “folk” category are all for accordion, so of course they could have just said “accordion,” if they had been paying attention to their own catalog. But where is the chamber music category? There ain’t one.

      Using the search engine, I found the same Dover edition of the trios that’s on Amazon. But once again, there is no indication of whether parts are included. And the “Look Inside” feature gives me three lousy pages — a table of contents and two pages of piano score of the first trio. No, this is the same old bullshit. Sorry.

  3. LOL! Did you try a simple search for Brahms piano trios? There are lots of editions of Op. 8 available. The performance editions note that parts are included, and usually who the editor was. (Dover editions generally are not performance editions, and don’t include parts for the strings.) True, you only get a page from each of the parts in the sample, so it’s not the same as being able to flip through the whole part, and that is a loss.

    I found a fairly complete list of Brahms chamber music by browsing by composer (Brahms) then category Ensembles, sub-category Small Ensembles. On my page, the categories are down the left and the Ensembles category is right under the Instruments category, which you described.

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