- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - Music can’t play itself.

The pristine condition of Johann Schneider’s 1877 composition of sacred liturgy betrayed a sad fact: No finger smudges or coffee rings meant no one had handled the big sheets of paper since the Viennese musician wrote it sometime around his 20th birthday.

As she approached her 70th birthday, Schneider’s great-granddaughter, Sally Daer, decided its time had finally come.

On Jan. 16, Daer gathered a dozen fellow classical musicians under the baton of conductor Dean Peterson to hear what Schneider had composed. The circle of performers confirmed the judgment of former Missoula Symphony Orchestra music director Joseph Henry: This is a significant piece of music.

Suspended somewhere between Mozart’s classical masses and Beethoven’s more Romantic style, Schneider’s “Offertorium” and “Ave Maria” make one wish to hear the whole church service. But it appears he never wrote the rest, and he may have never heard those pieces played anywhere other than in his own imagination.

Indeed, it was only because of Daer’s determination that the music got this far.

Schneider became a professional violinist in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s national orchestra in the 1880s and ‘90s. In 1897, he uprooted his family and emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on the Fourth of July.

“But once he got here, just surviving was tough,” Daer said. “It was always ‘Johann’s piece.’ We didn’t know if he ever did any others. It was a huge family mystery.”

Schneider died in 1936, and Daer’s grandmother, Anita Schneider Berg, took possession. She passed it to her son, Lloyd Berg, Daer’s father. Berg went on to become the longest-serving professor at Montana State University and holder of more than 250 patents for chemical processes. But he was no musician.

“He gave it to me, and said, ‘Do something with this,’ ” Daer recalled. “But it sat on the shelf. Once a year I’d be cleaning the house and there it was, and I’d say, ‘What on earth am I going to do with this darn thing?’ “

Daer has played violin with the Missoula Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades. She took the manuscript to Joseph Henry, the symphony’s longtime conductor and artistic director, for advice. This was as Henry was retiring in 2006.

“He (Henry) said, ‘This is a significant piece of music,’ ” Daer said. “He said the first thing we needed to do was turn it into a score. He was going to Europe for a month, and he said when he got back, he would like to do this. But as he got off the plane back in Missoula, he had a devastating stroke and never recovered.”

Symphony executive director John Driscoll returned the papers to Daer, and the two got to talking. The challenge, they agreed, was turning the composer’s handwritten ideas into the crisp, standardized notation musicians read on the stand.

Joan Chesebro plays cello in a quartet with Daer, and volunteered to take on the project. That involved a mix of computer programming and detective work. She found it packed with oddities. For example, Schneider wrote parts for “B-flat oboe.” No such instrument exists.

“So we wrote them for clarinets, which do come in B-flat,” Chesebro said. “The manuscript says there’s a part for organ, but we’ve never found it.”

And although she reads Latin, Chesebro said she had a tough time figuring out Schneider’s handwritten lyrics in the “Offertorium.” She eventually traced them to Psalm 145, which is traditionally the text for the third Sunday after Easter in the Roman Catholic Church.

The “Ave Maria” had other puzzles. Schneider combined the traditional Latin words for the “Hail Mary” prayer with a lesser-known prayer, the “Ave Mari Stella” or “Star of the Sea.”

Finally, there was the music itself. The original manuscript is on big sheets of composing paper, with each part written separately. Chesebro used a computer program to transcribe and rearrange the passages into a conventional score for performance.

“But when we rehearsed it for the first time, we found notes that didn’t sound right,” she said. “He never heard this performed, as far as we know. And it was difficult to decipher exactly what notes he wanted in some places.”

Which raises interesting questions about how Johann’s piece got written in the first place.

The “Offertorium” and “Ave Maria” are typically parts of a larger Mass - not stand-alone works. Was it a learning exercise for his teacher, the renowned Austrian violinist Leopold Auer? Was it an audition for a composing job at a big cathedral or an aristocrat’s household? What was it supposed to sound like?

“Joan had gotten it into a computer program and we could listen to a MIDI version,” Driscoll said. “But it was just tinny computer music, with no dynamics. The vocal part was all just ‘la-la-la.’ I said if you want to get this heard, you need to make sure it’s performed by the right ensemble.

“And Sally’s been such a great part of the Missoula Symphony for so many years,” Driscoll continued. “I just knew if she asked the best, everyone would say yes. So we just called folks, and here we are.”

“Here” was the University of Montana’s Music Recital Hall, one of the finest performing spaces in the Pacific Northwest. Four violins, two violas, two cellos, two clarinets, French horn, bass and vocalist all assembled to give Johann Schneider back his voice.

Daer joined the string section, playing her great-grandfather’s Franz Geissenhof violin. It was made in 1805, the same year Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were leading the Voyage of Discovery through Montana.

On that Thursday evening, the musicians were still making adjustments. Lead violinist Margaret Baldridge noticed a timing difference that made the instrumentalists stumble when Karen Callan’s vocal part entered. Penciling in eighth notes instead of sixteenth notes solved the problem.

“It’s got that heart-on-your-sleeve opera style of that time,” said Baldridge, who is concertmaster of the String Orchestra of the Rockies and Missoula Symphony Orchestra. “If it had been made known at the time, it probably would have been played a lot more.”

Thursday’s gathering included time to make a professional recording of Schneider’s work, which will be transferred to a CD. That makes it available for other musicians to hear and share, and consider for public performances.

At Christmas, Daer took the finished score to Henry. He needs a wheelchair to get around, and still has difficulty with his speech.

“I asked him to proofread it and make sure it’s accurate,” Daer said. “He took my paper and read it through and said that’s just right. And then he held onto it for an hour and a half as we talked.”


Information from: Missoulian, https://www.missoulian.com

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