By Harvey H. Miller

In 1997, toward the end of my forty-year career as Professor of Music at Brevard College, I was asked to contribute a chapter on braille music to a book titled Braille into the Next Millennium, edited by Judith Dixon at the Library of Congress. The chapter was not quite complete when I realized I had exhausted my resources. Having already planned a trip with David Kirby, a fellow faculty member, to Cincinnati to visit friends, I decided to take a detour through Louisville to visit the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), which was established by Congress in 1858 to create educational material for blind students and adults.

In visiting APH, my hope was that I might find some information about Louis Braille that had not been available to me in my earlier research. In addition to printing presses that produced reading material for the blind and a shop with educational materials for blind students, we discovered that the APH included a museum as well—a museum dedicated to the preservation of materials and artifacts significant to the education of and betterment of life for the blind. Anne Rich, the acquisition director of the museum, kindly gave us a tour. Among the many examples of braille texts and images from the early days of the printing house, there was a glass case containing a slightly tattered book of music in braille. Anne, after learning of my research on braille music, suggested that I might be interested in this book. It contained music produced in mid-nineteenth-century France during the early years of the braille printing system. Finding it, I felt the sense of amazement and discovery that I had several years before when, as a student at Indiana University, I had come across a similar glass case containing a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Anne offered to let us take a closer look, and of course we jumped at the chance. I immediately realized the value and rarity of this braille book. It was certainly not as famous or valuable as the Gutenberg Bible, but it was also a pioneering work in its own way, as it was one of the first (if not the first) published braille music books. Its title page, in letters formed with dots, reads “Recueil de Morceaux d’Orgue,” and it was published by Paris’s school for the blind, the Institution Impériale des Jeunes Aveugles (now the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, or INJA) in 1863—only a few years after Louis Braille had invented his six-dot printing system for literature, math, and music.

This Recueil de morceaux d’orgue was a collection of organ music published for the students at the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles, by four of its professors: Gabriel Gauthier (1808–53), Marius Gueit (1808–ca. 1865), Julien Héry (1820–98), and Victor Paul (1835–1902). All four composers were blind themselves and were alumni of the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles; Gauthier had been a close friend of Louis Braille during his time as a student. The book contains fifty-four organ pieces of easy to intermediate difficulty, including character pieces, offertories, communions, and much more; this copy was donated to the APH by Warren Figueiredo of New Orleans, who in turn had received it from a French family around 1970. A page of notation from the book is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Recueil de morceaux d’orgue (1863), page 9. The first three lines give the title, tempo, key, and meter: “Num. X. L’ardeur. | Prestissimo. [quarter note] = 116 [key signature of one sharp] 4 [i.e., 4/4 meter] | Grand jeu.” Each paragraph corresponds to what in ink-print notation would be one staff of a section of music: section 1 right hand, section 1 left hand, section 2 right hand, section 2 left hand, and the beginning of section 3 right hand.

I was truly amazed to find that this historic book of braille music had survived almost 150 years, and although I had to leave this treasure to continue on my travels with David, I knew in the back of my mind that this music should be made available to blind and sighted musicians alike. At that time, I couldn’t conceive how this could be accomplished, since the book was too fragile to be loaned out. Although the technology existed to scan and copy braille books, this old, fragile book would probably be destroyed by such a procedure, and the museum staff would not allow it.

For the rest of the trip, David and I discussed ways the music could be transcribed and made available to the public. One possibility was that a reader of braille notation could dictate the music to a sighted person, but we determined that it would take a prohibitive amount of time to do such a thing. Once in Cincinnati, we were preoccupied with visiting with friends, concerts, and lectures, and the braille book in Louisville with its unknown gems was put aside for a while.

When the first version of the Sibelius music typesetting software was created in 1998 by a young, enterprising, and partially sighted programmer in England, blind composers had for the first time a means of putting their music into print without the aid of a sighted assistant. After working with Sibelius myself, I decided it would be the perfect solution for transcribing the book in Louisville. I sought permission from the curators of the museum of the APH, and Anne Rich gave me authorization to copy the book with a few minor restrictions.

Harvey Miller and StoneyMy plan was to make a braille paper copy of the book and bring it back to Brevard, where I would transcribe the music into Sibelius. My dog Stoney and I prepared for our trek to Louisville, packing a large stack of braille paper and enough dog food and clothes for two weeks. Naively I thought two weeks would be plenty of time to copy a hundred or so pages of braille.

Stoney and I made it through the Atlanta airport and settled into our seat on the plane to Louisville. I felt pretty good about the project: I had secured permission to copy the book, made hotel reservations, and arranged for transportation from the airport, and I was certain it would be clear sailing from here on. The passenger next to me was quiet for a while, so I didn’t say anything either. Then, without preamble, she said, “Your dog is not a thoroughbred.” I thought, “What the heck!” and responded to her with, “Then I guess I won’t plan on entering him in any dog shows.” I had hoped to get at least a laugh from this remark, but all I got the rest of the trip was silence. Little did I know this was just the first of my misadventures.

We arrived in Louisville on a cold January afternoon. We made it to our hotel, which had obviously seen better days, but we checked in anyway, hoping for the best. The first thing I discovered was that there was no restaurant in the hotel and none nearby; the closest eating establishment was three or four blocks away down a busy highway with no sidewalks. Stoney was quite possessive of his food and had no intention of sharing, so I was out of luck in that regard. After a bit of investigation, I found a service station nearby that had snacks. We somehow made it safely there and back and settled down in our room with a cheese sandwich and a book.

It didn’t end there, however. Even though the heat was running, both Stoney and I were freezing. I thought I had perhaps left the door open. Upon checking, I discovered there was no insulation around the door and that there was an inch of space between the bottom of the door and the threshold. By this time, snow had started falling, and the cold wind was wailing under the door. Placing several towels and the curtains from the window at the base of the door helped squelch most of the cold wind. Stoney and I then curled up together on the couch and tried to keep each other warm.

The next morning, we discovered that breakfast was thankfully provided by the hotel, and a very kind hotel employee helped me with the waffle iron. With a good breakfast under my belt, Stoney and I, along with my stack of braille paper, took a cab to the APH. We met with Anne Rich, who proved to be extremely helpful with my project. When she heard that there were no restaurants near the hotel, she offered to drive me back to the hotel in the evenings and help me pick up a takeout meal on the way—a real lifesaver.

Eager to start my project, I discovered that my plan for copying the music was going to prove too difficult. Reading the manuscript with my left hand and writing with my right on a Perkins Brailler was not an efficient process. On my next trip to APH several months later, I solved the problem by bringing along my computer with Sibelius and a MIDI keyboard. This way I could read the braille with my left hand and enter the music into the computer with my right hand by playing on the keyboard.

Harvey Miller and BaileyOver a ten-year period and with another dog, Bailey, I made many trips to Louisville to complete the transcription of the Recueil de morceaux d’orgue. In preparing the manuscript for publication in the series Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (published by A-R Editions), I researched the biographies of the four composers, information about braille music, and the history of the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles. There was very little information available on these obscure musicians, and most of what was available was in French—I was fortunate that computers can now be used to translate to a limited degree.

At this point, Adelaide Kersh got involved, to assist me not only with research tasks but also in my travels back to Louisville to double-check the original manuscript for errors. We took a piano keyboard and my braille copy of the Recueil and worked in the museum from 8 AM until 5 PM every day for a week at a time. In the evenings, Adelaide played through the music to make sure it sounded correct. The challenges were multifold. The original braille manuscript was difficult to read, as some of the dots had become flattened with age and the edges of the pages were often tattered. In addition, because braille music notation has developed much over the years since the Recueil, it was not always an easy or straightforward matter to interpret the notation used. In cases where readings were doubtful, obscured, or missing, I often had to interpret the composer’s intent based on music theory concepts and performance practice.

Now, more than twenty years after I first came across it, the Recueil de morceaux d’orgue is available to sighted musicians. And thanks to the Library of Congress, a modern braille edition of the book exists for blind musicians as well.

 Harvey H. Miller was born in Salisbury, North Carolina. He began studying piano at age seven and voice a year later. At age ten he entered the North Carolina School for the Blind in Raleigh, where he studied piano, voice, violin, cello, and organ, and participated in choral and orchestra ensembles. In 1954 he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied piano with Dr. William S. Newman and Dr. Wilton Mason, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in music in 1958, a Bachelor of Music Degree in piano performance in 1959, and a Master of Arts degree in musicology in 1960. In the late 1960s he took a sabbatical to study composition at Indiana University, where he studied with Juan Orrego-Salas and Bernard Heiden, receiving a Master of Music degree in composition.

From 1960 to 1999, Miller was professor in the music department at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina, teaching piano, voice, music theory, and electronic music, and conducting the Brevard College Glee Club. In addition to his duties at the college, he conducted church choirs and civic choral groups, played violin in the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, performed as piano and vocal soloist with the ASO, and sung as a soloist in oratorios, operas, and musicals. He has performed frequently as a recitalist in Brevard and surrounding areas.

Mr. Miller’s compositions have been performed in various places throughout the United States and in Europe. His Symphony for Strings won first prize in the International Composition competition for Blind and Partially Sighted Composers and was performed in March 1997 in the Czech Republic by string players from the Prague Conservatory. It was premiered in this country in 2002 by the Brevard Chamber Orchestra.

He is a member of the American Musicological Society and the American Guild of Organists, and serves on the Music Committee of the Braille Authority of North America, which recently finished a new revision of the braille music code. He is the author of the article “The Braille Music Code” in Braille into the Next Millennium, ed. Judith M. Dixon (National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 2000).