What makes a good edition?

Many musicians and music teachers are not always familiar with how to assess an edition of music. Your music teacher from 20, 30 or 40 years ago may have suggested that you buy Mozart's Sonatas or Bach's Well Tempered Clavier in a particular edition, and that is what you have used ever since. But there have been changes and developments in musicology over the last few decades, and the edition you have may not be the most useful for you and your students any more.

In this article, I'd like to look at the following points:
· the issues involved
· the need for a little research
· some musicological conventions


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

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

With the greater confidence of past ages, and the total absence of that stylistic selfconsciousness that characterises 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 s/he can the best intentions of the composer, and should differentiate as simply as possible between his/her own suggestions for realizing the composer's intentions and the markings found in the musical sources on which he bases his work.

Despite 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 mistakes.

Lesson one 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.

Current 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 important.

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), Broude Brothers (Boston), Fuzeau (France) and Cornetto Verlag (Germany). 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.

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.

Having 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 computer.

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.

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.

[Note. 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.]


(c) Patrice Connelly, 1999