is editing anyway?
In musical terms, it could be defined as the preparation of music for
publication. The editor is usually not the composer, but one hopes that
they are expert in their field in both musical and historical terms
Consider the following from the famous late musicologist and editor
Howard Mayer Brown, from his article "Editing" in the New Grove Dictionary
of Music and Musicians, (Macmillan, 1980).
With the greater confidence of past ages, and the total absence of that
stylistic selfconsciousness that characterizes the 20th century, earlier
editors often 'improved' on the work of the composer whose music they
were editing by bringing it into line with the aesthetic and technical
standards of a different age. Our greater awareness of our own ethnocentric
limitations and our greater respect for the artefacts of the past have
led us to set for ourselves different ideals. In general, 20th-century
musicians feel that the responsible editor should try to make as clear
as he can the best intentions of the composer, and he should differentiate
as simply as possible between his own suggestions for realizing the
composer's intentions and the markings found in the musical sources
on which he bases his work.
Despite his gender-specific ideas of editors (women can do it too!!!),
Brown raises pertinent issues here. You should already be asking just
who wrote your favourite editions of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, unless
of course you own Urtext editions already (Urtext indicating that the
edition in front of you is faithful to the original and any tampering
is minimal and should be marked as such). If you compare many older
editions, you will find differing notes, dynamics, tempi and other markings.
Even some new editions are based on the older ones and repeat the same
should be "Don't believe
all you read." In my own research when editing the works of the
17th century English composer William White, a date of 1641 recurred
in my reading of a number of important references, and was implied as
a date of composition. However, careful scrutiny proved this to be a
date written on a manuscript by a later owner, and that the works were
written some time around or before 1620. At least four or five major
musicological resources mentioned 1641 in the wrong context, and it
was quite easy to see where the writers had copied from one another.
Instances of this abound.
musicological ideas dictate that the performer get as close to the composer's
intentions as possible. The use of period instruments is one aspect
of this, but is outside the scope of this article. Using an urtext edition
is a good start, but what if one is not available for the music you
want to play? All you can get are a couple of non-urtext editions. How
do you choose the best?
"Research your target." Read reviews in respected journals. Subscribe or go to your local library.
Look up the editors in reference works and get familiar with the important
and noted scholars. Talk to your local musicologist or see if there
is a useful course available where you can update your knowledge. If
you are unable to obtain good journals or find courses, perhaps you
should ask your supplier or institution why not. Consumer demand is
Of course one could go further. Large music libraries, such as in universities
and conservatoria usually have excellent resources, and there are respectable
collected editions of the great composers such as Bach, Mozart, Handel,
Haydn, Beethoven and most of the major composers of other periods. There
are also facsimiles in print by various publishing houses: SPES (Italy),
Minkoff (Geneva), Broude Brothers (Boston), Fuzeau (France) and Alamire
(Belgium). However, using some of these may require some specialist
knowledge, but this is not insurmountable, and many of them are clear
and very usable by any trained musician. Microfilm and fiche are other
possibilities for the dedicated researcher.
It is easy to be contemptuous of an edition of music, but lets look
at a few problems from the editor's point of view. These problems differ
for each style, period and nationality of the music to be prepared. An editor's decision may be a tough one, as conflicting uses and philosophies have to be weighed up. Inevitably one cannot please all of the people, all of the time.
When an editor begins their task, one of the first things to do is to
establish a primary source for the music: either manuscript or publication.
There may be one only, or there may be many, and if there is more than
one, the good and thorough editor will, throughout the process, prepare
a critical commentary which will detail just what the differences are
between each source. Then the composer may have revised a work, and
this has to be taken into account too.
of next column)
Composers could be notoriously fickle about their editions. Some went through draft after draft, revising their work, and disowning earlier editions. For example, there is more than one extant version of Faure's famous Requiem. Does the editor ignore or prefer the earlier version? Do they do a mega-edition and include more than one publicaton? Is that feasible economically? Is it what the customers want? What might the composer have wanted if still alive? Often there is no right answer, or what is right for now will be seen to be wrong in later decades. Music editing can be subject to "fashion" or "trends" just like clothing.
checked the sources for completeness (bars can be missing in manuscripts),
authority (is there one in the composer's own hand?) and date (earlier
is generally better, but note above comments), and having done some research about the composer,
the work and the context, preferably from primary sources, the intrepid
editor is ready to score the work, either by hand or nowadays, onto
What about mistakes? They can occur anywhere, and obvious ones are easy
to detect. But a knowledge of the musical style is absolutely necessary,
for dissonance has been used in many different ways in different periods.
There is much Renaissance music where one could "correct" the notes,
but the editor would be wrong to do so, as the dissonances were intentional, and become beautiful when your ear becomes accustomed to hearing them in context.
Songs have their own problems. Word underlay was generally vague for
many centuries, and there may be more than one satisfactory solution
to setting a text to the notes. The editor also needs a knowledge of
languages if setting foreign texts, lest the results be laughable.
What about different notational conventions? Up until the 17th century,
it was common practice for music to be unbarred, and therefore accidentals
always applied only to the note next to them, and did not carry on through
the bar even if there were bars. First and second time bar signs, repeats
and other signs were not standardised, and various experiments can be
encountered along the way. Performance conventions were often so well
known in earlier centuries that they were not notated either. What should
go in and what not? What about where a composer indicated an intention
(slurs, articulation) at the beginning of a piece and assume the player
would continue it. Editors must be wary.
Then the editor has to deal with figured basses in baroque music. Should
the figures go in? Should a realisation be written? If so, how detailed
should it be? Should it be a mere skeleton of the harmony, or a solid accompaniment? There's historical evidence for both approaches. Should just the figures go in for the keyboard player
to realise their own, perhaps on a blank staff?
Early 20th century editors thought nothing of halving, quartering or
even eighthing time values, transposing music and adding their own dynamics,
metronome markings and ideas to a work, particularly those prior to
the 18th century (Bach and Handel included). Notes might even be changed. No indication would occur
to show the editor's alterations, and since other editions were not necessarily
available, that editor's decisions coloured our knowledge of that music.
Other editions could well have been copied from these faulty works and the problem compounded. These days, several conventions apply which counter this problem.
Firstly, an incipit before the music starts, consisting of the original
clef, key and time signatures and the first note. This shows any transposition,
alteration to time values and in some cases gives valuable information
about instrumentation. Within the music, editorial additions are shown
either in square brackets, or with a small vertical line through slurs
or ties. Editorial accidentals are often put above the note, as a suggestion
or a correction. Good musicological editions will contain a succinct
introduction stating historical and biographical information, context
of the work(s), performance suggestions, editorial method and the critical
Have you never seen this in a piece of music? Try your music library
for any volume of Musica Britannica, and many other reference works.
But other publishers are now doing some or all of these things, particularly
in early music, where the problems increase exponentially the further
back you go in time. PRB Productions (California) is one company with
all of the above, and lots of others have adopted many good practices.
The fact that an edition does not have incipits or introductions does
not necessarily mean it is a bad edition, but it will help you in choosing
and assessing your purchases.
Most of Saraband Music's own editions do not have incipits, but this
is not because I did not want to do it; more that the music notation
program that I use does not allow it. The only way I can manage it is
to do it in a separate file, then print, cut and paste it (with scissors
and glue) onto the beginning of the piece. SM22 does this, and some
future editions too.]