In 1863, the Imperial Institute for the Young Blind in Paris published a “Collection of Organ Pieces” —“for the special use of students at the Institute.”
These pieces were all composed by professors of music at the Institute, all of whom had been students there also. They are Gabriel Gauthier, Marius Gueit, Victor Paul, and Julien Héry.
The first two volumes of this four volume work will be available from the NLS Music Section next week. The book number is BRM36059.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, for some unknown number of years this collection no doubt served its purpose and students learned and played. But since only one of the composer-professors in the collection had any real reputation, it is likely that it fell into disuse by the end of the century, if not before.
What we do know, however, is that this volume of 54 compositions was given to Warren D. Figueiredo in 1970 by a French family, more than a century after its publication. Then in 1993, Mr. Figueiredo gave the volume to the museum at the American Printing House for the Blind, in Louisville, Kentucky. There the volume sat under lock and key in a glass display case until a couple of years ago, when Harvey Miller (Music Section patron, retired professor of music) was invited to assess the volume at APH.
His assessment required washing his hands before every use of the book, and touching it using only the tips of his fingers. Very tiring! For its age, the book was in excellent condition with only a few places where the braille was unreadable with fingers. Most of the damage was located on the edges where the paper had begun to crumble.
Because of the age and fragile nature of this volume, it could not withstand the mechanical process of scanning. Thus it was left to Harvey Miller — a responsible and knowledgeable reader of braille music — to transcribe this music and put it into accessible formats for both sighted and blind musicians.
What Harvey did was read the original braille of the volume and then input it directly into Sibelius, a print music notation software.
The Sibelius files will be the basis for a standard ink-print edition, due later this year from A-R Editions, Inc., as well as the modern braille edition that we are bringing out now, through the transcription of Prima Vista Braille Music Services. The Music Section will also bring out a large print edition after the standard print is published.
So in one grand act, the book went from the 1863 original braille to electronic print.
For the NLS publication we decided to lead with an English translation of the original French title page, for clarity and ease of use. In the course of doing so, we found that the last four words before the date (braille procédé l’braille) were perplexing because they were not readily translatable. The last two words (l’braille) didn’t look like French at all, and the first was historically questionable.
But the strange looking “l’braille” turns out to simply mean “L. Braille” (for Louis Braille) because the braille of this period didn’t distinguish between a period and an apostrophe, and didn’t use capital letters!
The first of the four words was “braille.” But, we asked, could this really mean “braille” as we think of it today, at this early date? Only ten years after Louis died? I first checked with my expert-in-braille colleague Judy Dixon. The earliest date that she knew that “braille” meant braille in our sense, and not someone’s last name, was 1871.
Well, after further research and reflection, “braille” had to mean braille as we know it now. First, we know that it was in 1829 that Louis Braille first published his “system” of six dots. So 34 years later is not too soon to imagine that his name could come to represent the system by 1863, if not earlier. (We can be glad that it wasn’t called by his first name “Louie.” Do you read louie? Do you know music louie? Or, what if it had been invented by Braille’s friend and composer herein Marius Gueit? Can you read music gueit? And we’re really glad that one actual early contender for the name of the system didn’t win out: anaglyptography.)
So here, with this new braille edition of long-hidden compositions, by fairly obscure composers, we get a sample of a very early use of the braille system allowing blind composers to create new works independently. And we also get a firsthand taste of the beginnings of the long, old, French tradition of blind organists and their compositions, one that continues to this day.
UPDATE: December 14, 2016. This request has now come full circle. All four volumes are available and Harvey Miller requested this very special title from the NLS Music Section. It was a pleasure to emboss and send it to him, and to participate in bringing the past into the present. And forever, via digital preservation.