Optical Spacing, Tweaks, And A Swan (Part 1)

Those of you who are also reading the lilypond-user mailing list may have noticed from my recent activity that I’ve been dealing with a certain score lately. Actually this is an edition that is right now being printed, and while it is far from being as exciting a project as some other edition projects discussed before on Scores of Beauty I think it’ still a nice one. And I hope it’s acceptable to use this platform for a shameless plug, especially as I will (of course) spice it up with some serious LilyPond discussion.

Today’s post starts a set of two articles that is a little bit of everything: it’s admittedly an advertisment but also a report about LilyPond’s strengths and weaknesses, and it gives insights in some useful techniques.

A New Suit For The Swan

Occasionally I accompany my son who’s been playing cello for a few years now. Recently we played together in his school orchestra’s performance of the “Carnaval des animaux” by Saint-Saëns, and now we’re playing the beautiful “Swan” in its even more famous incarnation as a separate piece for cello and one piano. Laying hands on this version for the first time I was irritated by a few awkward sounds and soon realized that the dedicatee, cellist Charles Joseph Lebouc, hadn’t created a proper arrangement. Instead the well-known version simply leaves out one of the two original piano parts. This explained the perceived flaws in the voice-leading, but also seemed to call for an appropriate response. After some pondering I decided to handle the situation not with a few superficial fixes but with a completely new arrangement. So in the last weeks I prepared an edition of the Swan with a new piano version that faithfully combines both piano parts to be played by one pianist. This is, of course, more demanding than the well-known version but performers and listeners are rewarded with the full sonority of the original.

It is surprising to see that such an arrangement places a spotlight on a harmonic delicacy of the composition that can easily go by unnoticed otherwise. Consider this excerpt from the middle section, which you can also take as an example for the arrangement in general:

Excerpt (click to view PDF)

Excerpt (click to view PDF)

If you look at the second measure you can see the bass line playing a quaver figuration, first in g major and then – masked – in g minor. At this point the middle voice plays a semiquaver figuration of a diminished 7th chord belonging to a major. OK, it would be possible to explain the left hand in the context of a major too (with a diminished 9 and a suspended 4), but that is rather far-fetched. I think the measure is described much better as a somewhat “bitonal” clash of sounds resulting from two chord progressions moving independently. In any case, the distribution of the middle voice over two hands makes it pretty hard to achieve the required evenness and delicacy for the semiquavers and at the same time bring out the bass line in a sufficiently linear, polyphonic fashion. This is where this new arrangement is actually demanding.

I am happy to announce that the new edition is now available from sound-rel, the publisher that also took responsibility for Oskar Fried’s songs, a project that has extensively been covered on this blog. It is available for violoncello and a number of alternative solo instruments, and additionally there is a (historical) arrangement for medium voice and piano which I also adapted to my new accompaniment. I think it has turned out beautifully (not the least due to the nice cover image we got from Roman Lang, the illustrator of a number of children’s books well-known at least in Germany). Apart from being a very thin volume it is made with the same love for detail and beauty as the earlier Oskar Fried edition.

We have worked hard to finish it in time for your christmas shopping 😉 . But to be serious: by ordering the new “Swan” you will also support the publisher to cover the still open costs of the earlier award winning edition. (If that should ever happen we could finally make the source code of our edition publicly available.) You can find more details about the available options and prices on the (German-only, sorry) detail page of sound-rel’s website.

An “Annoying Feature”?

So, what’s the point in announcing an edition on Scores of Beauty, does the fact that it has been realized with LilyPond justify a post? I would support this as I’ve contributed quite a lot so I can “afford” a little selfishness occasionally. But moreover, this is a post about LilyPond, it just became too long once more, and so I decided to split it into two parts, the second part dealing with LilyPond issues again.

While working with LilyPond was in general a pleasant undertaking I ran into one issue that is worth sharing and discussing here on our blog. At one point in time I realized that LilyPond’s default engraving was in a way beautiful as always but at the same time exposed a fundamentally flawed horizontal spacing:

Surprisingly irregular default spacing (click to enlarge)

Surprisingly irregular default spacing (click to enlarge)

This irregularity is totally unacceptable, and I wondered how LilyPond could actually be doing this. In the next post I will tell you why this issue is actually related to a major LilyPond strength, and how I could gracefully overcome the limitation.

(click to visit the illustrator's website)

(© 2015, Roman Lang, click to visit the illustrator’s website)

2 thoughts on “Optical Spacing, Tweaks, And A Swan (Part 1)

  1. Jan

    Thanks for the post!

    My questions refer to the the second picture in the post:
    Is the staff the only staff in the system?
    And with “Surprisingly irregular default spacing” are you referring to the spaces
    * distance(note 2, note 3) vs distance(note 3, note 4),
    * distance(note 5, note 6) vs distance(note 6, note 7), etc…
    or do you also have in mind the distance(note 1, note 2) vs the others?
    Is the meter 12 / 8 ?

    I completely agree with you, that the layout/spacing is undesirable.
    Feel free to post the ly-script so that others can reproduce.

    1. Urs Liska

      The meter is 6/4, and there is an additional piano with two staves. Yes, I am talking about the spacing of the consecutive quavers that should be much more regular.

      But all this will become completely clear in the second post. This is more or less finished already, but we’ll probably have one or two other posts published before.


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