Newswise — Benjamin Franklin did everything else, so why should we be surprised to learn that he wrote music too? Now, thanks to work by a music professor at Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA, a string composition, discovered only in 1945 and believed to have been written by Franklin late in his life, will soon be available for school orchestras to play.
"The original string quartetto by Franklin calls for all four string instruments to retune to different pitches creating 16 notes to be played without left-hand fingering using only the bow on the four open strings. There is nothing else in the world like it," says Dr. Kenneth L. Sarch. What else would we expect from Franklin?
Sarch calls the music, written as a quartet for three violins and a cello, "charming, interesting, even fascinating to play."
"The music is not very profound and is harmonically quite simple. Although not one of our great masterpieces of music, it is a charming and fascinating suite of short dances and is unique in using retuned open strings without fingers."
Franklin and his amateur music-loving friends "must have amused themselves immensely playing these short pieces on open strings using just the bow," says Sarch.
Sarch has arranged three movements from the piece so that it can be played as close to Franklin's version as possible. He says that several composers have attempted to arrange the harmonically-simple piece, but added to it in an attempt to "improve" the music or changed the key so that it could be played more comfortably for string instruments.
In what he calls "Franklin's clever composition," Sarch says the original melody jumps around from player to player, making it difficult to follow. Sarch's version sticks to the original with only a few necessary additions to allow the piece to work in a logical format for a five-part string orchestra.
Sarch is sending the musical score and recording to a publisher this summer and hopes that it will be published and available to the public in late 2007.
It is surmised that Franklin composed the music in Paris late in his life, around 1778, although there is no mention of it in the volumes of literature on Franklin. His autobiography had already been written by then. 1778 was the same year that Franklin was successful in getting France to sign an alliance with the fledgling United States against the British. The musical work was discovered in 1945, and seems to have been unknown to Franklin historians before that time.
"The Paris manuscript attributed the music to Franklin and there is nothing to suggest that it was not Franklin. All we can say is that it was attributed to Franklin and he probably was indeed the composer. It must have caught on, because the music was copied and found in several European countries."
Franklin's musical output was not great, says Sarch. In addition to the string quartet music he wrote two or three songs, published some early hymn books and wrote a short treatise on music aesthetics.
Sarch was awarded a grant from Mansfield University to conduct his research at the Philadelphia Free Library where he used a copy of the original Paris manuscript to transcribe the music.
Sarch says he wants children to be able to enjoy the music just as Franklin and his friends did.
"It is now written like a normal string orchestra work, making it easy to read and learn for young orchestras."
Sarch and his colleagues plan to assemble a string orchestra of children at Mansfield to perform Franklin's piece as part of the university's Sesquicentennial Celebration in 2007.