Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OSCAR Student Karen Smith Investigates “Who is Peter Ritter?”

“Who is Peter Ritter?” is the question my research group and I have been trying to answer all summer. Johann Peter Ritter, who lived from 1753-1846 (depending on your source), was a prominent musician and composer in Mannheim, Germany. Throughout the centuries between his death and this summer, well over a hundred pieces of his musical legacy have found their way into the Library of Congress’ Music collection.

I thought I would be a part of a straightforward transcription project: photograph some of this composer’s works at the Library of Congress, and turn them into modern sheet music. However, I learned skills I did not expect: how to use a reading room at the Library of Congress, how to transpose scores for both modern and historical instruments, how to work past language barriers in research. I learned how and when to make educated guesses about historical documents. I developed an eye for the many significant differences between compositions for different purposes and different instruments. I learned my way around the best musical and library-related search engines on the Internet.

I was also challenged to present one of these transcriptions with live musicians. I have never coordinated musicians or led a rehearsal before, and the exercise was definitely out of my comfort zone. After long email threads, and a lot of nervous hand-wringing, it was satisfying and downright delightful to see my School of Music peers sign onto the project and finally bring Ritter’s music to life.

The Peter Ritter research group has contributed its work to a collection of free music for public consumption, and what better way is there to spend a summer than performing works of musical public service? I like to imagine how happy Peter Ritter would be to know that audiences will hear his music once again, two hundred years after he wrote it.