Le Chemin de Fer

My first major project using the GNU Lilypond music typesetting software was to re-typeset the piano piece Le Chemin de Fer (The Rail) by Charles-Valentin Alkan. I had seen performances of this fun and ridiculously fast piece on YouTube and tried learning it myself.

Part of the motivation was to create a MIDI file to play it at Alkan’s insane indicated tempo of 112 to the half note, which equates to the right hand playing continuous scales and arpeggios at a rate of nearly 15 notes per second.

I had retrieved a PDF file of the M. R. Braun edition from here. It’s a fancy, historic typeset of this piece. I decided to see how close to identical I could get with Lilypond. It’s not perfect but I can’t imagine getting any closer with other typesetting software. Some of the challenges included:

  • A fancy title page containing some minor graphics requiring embedding raw PostScript, which I eventually converted to native \path commands.
  • With the addition of the title page, having to use a music function to make sure the subsequent page was numbered 1.
  • Customizing the book title markup to match the text appearing at the top of the first page.
  • The slightly archaic notation for dynamics, rests, etc.
  • Painstakingly replicating every dynamic mark (staccato), pedaling, page breaks, fingering numbers, stem directions — everything.
  • I couldn’t get the pedal glyphs to match, and although I was able to font matching fonts on a web search (myfonts.com), they are non-standard and non-free.
  • Working around MIDI player issues. I find that regardless of what software is used to play a LilyPond MIDI file on Windows, the first and last fraction of a second are each cut off. I’ve taken to including a little silence at the beginning and end to avoid this.

The LilyPond file is organized into 20 sections, 10 for the left hand and 10 for the right.

The MIDI file is automatically generated when LilyPond is run.

You can play the MIDI file in your browser using the tools from www.midijs.net. The speed is indeed ridiculous.

The final PDF file!

Watch an unbelievable performance of the piece. There are a surprising number of good performances on YouTube, plus many MIDI renditions.