Albert E. Wier, Music Editor Extraordinaire

[Time was, I created imaginary books and authors for another publication. I find it curiously appropriate for the month that begins with April Fool’s Day to introduce someone real albeit slightly fantastical. Paul Crapo, an always inquisitive editor at Schwann Publications, instigated this research project back in the PDE (Pre-Digital Era). G.C.C.]

Grant Chu Covell

[April 2004.]

In some editions of Nicolas Slonimsky’s grand Baker’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, sandwiched between Friedrich Wilhelm Wieprecht (1802-1872; German trombonist and inventor) and Axel Otto Ingvar Wieslander (1917-1963; Swedish composer), you’ll find this entry:

Wier, Albert Ernest, American music editor; b. Chelsea, Mass., July 22, 1879; d. Brooklyn, Sept. 8, 1945. He studied music at the New England Cons. and at Harvard Univ.; from 1900 was music editor for various publ. firms in N.Y.; brought out a large number of collections and arrangements: Whole World Music Series, The Pianist’s Music Shelf, The Violinist’s Music Shelf, Young Folks’ Music Library, Radio Music Library, etc.; devised the “arrow signal” system, in which arrows and other markings are added to orch. scores to identify the main themes; using this system, he issued numerous collections: Classic Violin Concertos, The 9 Symphonies of Beethoven, The Symphonies of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, The Valkyrie, etc.; he also edited The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians (1938; withdrawn from circulation owing to an excessive number of demonstrable errors) and other reference works of questionable scholarship.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia was spectacularly riddled with inaccuracies. But Slonimsky’s summation unfairly tars a nearly four-decade career. Wier was a prolifically insightful music editor and clever inventor who devoted himself to bringing classical music into every American’s home and ensuring its comprehensibility.

Albert Ernest Wier was born on July 22, 1879 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the youngest child and only son of Mathilde Jane Banister and Albert Sentell Wier, a carpenter. Wier, who attended Boston public schools, was fortunate to study music and violin at the New England Conservatory, where his teachers included violinist Emil Mahr and the leading American composer of the day, George Whitefield Chadwick. He graduated from high school with distinction, winning a Price Greenleaf scholarship that covered tuition at Harvard University for one year ($150.00!). During the 1897-98 academic season, Wier attended Walter Spalding and John Knowles Paine’s classes.

During and after his Harvard year, Wier played the violin as soloist and with several ensembles and became the Dorchester Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster. He eventually made his way to New York City. Between 1900 and 1907, Wier published several of his own compositions, generally sacred settings (I Heard the Voice of Angels, Op. 26, My Dream of the Heavenly Shore, et al.) with the New York firm of Jos.W. Stern & Co. Dedicated to his mother, Song of Triumph, Op. 23 (1900), is a rousing hymn in glowing D Major, much like the Christmas carol, Joy to the World. The title page proudly proclaims “sung by Mr. Ardma O’Donnehaidh.” The mawkish lyrics are by Ernest Alberti, most likely Wier’s nom de plume:

The organ loft was pealing, As the anthem grand rang out, And the stern walls shook as they list to the song, Of faith that knows no doubt. The sounds of boyish voices, Sweet on the ear did fall, And the words of the rev’rent Gloria, Burst forth in the midst of all. etc.

Around 1907 Wier appears to have shifted from potboiler-composer to music editor. The first anthology I’ve found bearing Wier’s name is the 1907 The Most Popular Violin Pieces (New York: Hinds, Hayden & Eldridge, Inc.). By 1915 he was cranking out collections of songs and short pieces designed for the middle-class American home. Wier’s editorial positions can be traced through publication dates. D. Appleton and Co. published more than 28 titles between 1915 and 1930, Harcourt, Brace and Co. released over 30 books during the period 1930-38, and Longmans, Green and Co. oversaw multiple editions between 1940 and ’41. There were other publications as well: Boston’s United Drug Co. offered Songs that reach the heart in 1915.

While formulaic titles such as The Days of Corelli and Bach, The Days of Chopin and Liszt, The Days of Sarasate and Wilhelmj, The Days of Wieniawski and Monasterio, and The Days of Marsick and Sitt seem uninspired, the collections were chosen with care, meeting the desires and needs of early 20th-century students and amateurs. However, Wier’s taste was conservative, sticking to 19th-century European traditions built upon Germanic schooling. For the foreword to the 1935 Modern Sonatas for the Violin he wrote:

… [modern] signifies the inclusion of sonatas by composers after Beethoven and Schubert (the last of the great classicists), and accordingly comprises the sonatas of romanticists such as Schumann, and also the works of those who may be called “modern classicists” such as Brahms, Franck and Strauss. Sonatas have been chosen which display melodic and structural beauty rather than innovative tendencies; no attempt has been made to include works which mirror the ultra-modern trend toward atonality and polytonality.

For Modern Sonatas, Wier selected Bargiel, Brahms, Fauré, Franck, Grieg, Pâque, Rheinberger, Rubinstein, Schumann and Strauss.

Wier also worked on reference tomes. In 1926 he edited Swiss violinist Alberto Bachmann’s An Encyclopedia of the Violin. Wier’s preface defined the book’s scope: “… to include in a single volume concise and accurate information on every subject connected with the violin.” Bachmann wrote the majority of the material, a comprehensive history of the instrument. True to form, Wier supplied extensively annotated lists of repertoire, players (he included himself!), famous violins and their makers. He also included proper tempos for a few Haydn and Beethoven string quartets. I caught a few typos in an early edition: An ossia passage completely duplicates its original and “Joachim” is once spelled “Joachin.” Fulfilling Wier’s intentions, this book offers insight into early 20th-century violin performance. DaCapo Press has kept this classic in print.

Wier was also an inventor. He spent several years working on the “Opera Master,” his most forward-looking creation. Chronicled by The New York Times on May 15, 1933 (“Opera Made Clear by a New Device”), this machine made opera fully intelligible to “the average music lover in the home.” Composer biographies, music analyses, plot synopses, and text translations were projected onto a screen and synchronized with the recorded music. Twenty operas were released in this novel format, the ancestor of sub- and super-titles, closed captioning, CD Plus, and DVD technologies.

Hardly a household name today, but many have stumbled across his most enduring innovation. Now relegated to libraries and thrift shop shelves, the “Arrow System of Score Reading” proved popular and effective. Bold arrows are superimposed directly onto music scores clearly indicating the principal themes and the instruments that play them. The arrows guide the eyes of a music lover or student who can read music but has little experience following an orchestral score. Block letters call out structural points and themes. Wier developed Arrow Scores for symphonies by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms as well as chamber music.

Throughout the 1930s Wier continuously demonstrated his aptitude for music editing. A review of the 1930 What Do You Know About Music? prompted The New York Times to report: “… the author must be highly gifted in the art of patience and should be rewarded by the sales … [the book] is sure to obtain.”

Slonimsky dismisses Wier solely because of the infamous 1938 Macmillan Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. (Baker’s was eventually picked up by Macmillan. Perhaps they harbored a grudge.) Priced at $10.00, this 2,089-page, 3-1/2″-thick, blue-bound tome would appear to have been a task well within Wier’s grasp. Writing for Music Educators Journal, Will Earhart praised the Macmillan Encyclopedia for its “extraordinary comprehensiveness,” and was pleased to see American musicians and composers well represented.

Earhart discounted the errors he saw as inevitable in a project of such magnitude, but to his credit he expressed concern over an intrinsic inclusiveness where the important and unimportant stood side by side indiscriminately. Wier’s entire editorial output does suggest a compulsive collator. Given his modest beginnings, it’s possible to consider his encyclopedia as a democratic leveler. From today’s perspective, the book is a doorstop packed with obscure names. The first page of H: Haack, Friedrich; Haack, Karl; Haag, Armin; Haag, Else; Haag, Herbert; Haagsch String Quartet; Haagsche Toonkunst Quartet; Haakman, Jean Jacques; Haaland, Ingebret; Haan, Willem de; Hann-Manifarges, Pauline de; Haapanen, Toivo; Haarhaus, Wilhelm; Haarklon, Johannes. The 1980 New Grove (another Macmillan publication) includes only four of these.

Every page is riddled with mistakes, many laughable, but the sheer quantity is inexcusable. Most errors are typographical, reading “m” for “rn” or “in,” taking “a” for “o” or “e,” “f” for “l,” dropping letters entirely, or creating fanciful phonetic equivalents of foreign spellings. Other mistakes are factual, many of which fall into the heinously unforgivable category of attributing death dates to individuals alive and flourishing.

According to the encyclopedia, Bach’s Art of Fugue was written between 1849 and 1850, Hans Erich Apostel studied composition with fellow countryman Allan Berg, there’s a fugal technique called “stutto,” and Karl Mayerhofer was a leading “bass-buffa” of his day. We also learn about posthumous achievements: Theodore Dubois died in 1924 but won the Prix de Rome in 1961, and Clara Anastasia Novello died in 1908 but sang at Felix Mendelssohn’s 1937 Gewandhaus Concerts.

While the high number of inaccuracies casts the entire volume into doubt, Wier ought not to be solely blamed for the mess unless he was the encyclopedia’s sole proofreader. Possibly a typesetter or two should have been let go as well.

In 1940, Macmillan issued a 16-page supplement containing over 1,100 corrections and emendations, approximately one fix per spread or every 40 entries. For example, on the first page of H, Haarklon should have been Haarklou. Wier’s own entry corrects several titles and bluntly announces: “The Macmillan encyclopedia of the violin, piano and recorded music will not be published.” This massive tome was never revised or reissued. I imagine a warehouse full of returned and unsold copies awaiting their destruction. Countless large libraries still possess it. Presumably acquisitions and deaccessioning were separate, cumbersome processes.

After the Macmillan fiasco, Wier moved on to Longmans, Green and Co., editing editions of classical chamber music and a few reference works. His reputation seems not to have been damaged. Howard Taubman wrote in his 1940 New York Times review of The Piano: Its History, Makers, Players and Music, “[Wier] seems almost everywhere in the publishing field where books of and about music are concerned.” However, this reference volume is less ambitious than An Encyclopedia of the Violin and not as well-constructed. Another of Wier’s last projects was the well-received 1943 Thesaurus of the Arts.

Wier died on September 8, 1945. “Ex-Music Editor” is the subhead of his September 10 New York Times obituary. Mistakes dogged him into the grave: The Times note erroneously assumes he completed four years at Harvard and graduated in 1901.

Wier’s name frequently turns up at online booksellers and eBay. His editions grow dusty in libraries and on amateurs’ shelves. Unfortunately, Slonimsky’s cursory dismissal is the most accessible citation for a forgotten music editor who spent his life expanding classical music’s reach and intelligibility.