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01 August 2016

1. The weight of tradition

Among the many things I loved about graduate school, the best was the music library.  Having come from an undergraduate institution with modest (although by no means insignificant) music holdings, walking into a major research library felt like being handed the keys to a high-performance sports car.  I knew I would only be using it to go around the block, but the amount of potential placed before me was thrilling.

My favorite place in the music library was a small, out-of-the-way room that held mainly two things:  the M3s and the ML134s.  In the Library of Congress classification, the shelf listing M3 indicates a collected edition of the works of an individual composer; ML134 is used for reference books devoted to a single composer, like thematic catalogues and bibliographies.  In other words, this room was set up to house the standard resources for research on the output of composers.

Working on a composer has rather gone out of fashion in musicology these days, as it seems inevitably to reinforce “the canon” of dead white males.  I remember meeting someone a few years ago at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society who asked “Who do you work on?” but then immediately apologized, as the question had implied I was doing old fashioned stuff.  No apology necessary:  I do work on composers (and mine have admittedly been dead, white, and male), and I don’t mind being out of date in that respect.  I don’t think we’re through dealing with the canon, even if we have rightly broadened the field exponentially beyond just musical works.  I think that if you can say something interesting, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about.  I just do better thinking in terms of composers and their music, so I work less on –isms.

Source:  https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994005418/PP/
I spent many happy hours at the large table in that downstairs room.  (It was the central window of the South end—the right hand side on this picture, third window in on level above the basement.)  Many of the things on the shelves were intimidating.  I still remember gazing over at the massive, forbidding bright red tomes of the Verdi edition (but shouldn’t he have been bound in green?); the purple Wagner volumes were just as tall, but they weren’t nearly as wide, as they tended to divide the works into separate acts.  In a way, that was even more intimidating.  Handel was navy blue; Mendelssohn was green; Rossini was brown (and now he’s yellow, in the newer edition), Mozart maroonish, and Bach a variety of shades of rust.  The 19th century editions had marbleized endpapers, but they somehow seemed less intimidating since they were familiar from relatively inexpensive reprints.  And beside many of the editions were the diminutive volumes of footnotes, the critical reports.  At the time those seemed the most forbidding of all, but then I can remember opening them and thinking how amateurish some of them looked, typewritten and on aging paper.  (There were reasons for that, but I didn’t know it at the time.)

One afternoon as I was working at that seminar table, the music librarian escorted in a group of people, including two or three structural engineers.  They were doing a thorough assessment of the building.  It was about 120 years old then, but it had been built to house the Civil Engineering department—classrooms and offices.  It had never been built to house noisy music studios, still less to withstand the ever-increasing weight of a library.  Already before I had arrived, much of the music library had been moved into the far end of the basement:  those stacks were locked, and items had to be paged by library staff.  But the library was still running out of space and—more worrying—the beams holding up the floors were sagging and pulling away from the supporting walls.  That problem would only get worse as more material was brought in every day.  (That sagging is a problem I see on my office shelves too….)

In my second year, it was teams of architects coming through, drawing up proposals for the music library.  In my third year, we were packed up and moved across the quad for the renovation of the building (including substantial new construction).  In my fourth year, we were back over.  The new building was wonderful in many respects, and the library was now designed intentionally—not just forced into a space.  But gone was my room of M3s and ML134s.  Those reference volumes were still together, but they were more impersonally disposed, rank on rank in shelves near the circulation desk, and with no convenient and inviting workspace.  I felt very much a stranger to that new library.

I remember, though, that as all of the circulating scores were at last in open stacks, I was surprised by the number of scores in the library collection as whole that seemed to be “duplicate”—lots of scores of the same works.  Of course I have realized since that (with the exception of a few duplicate copies and unaltered reprints) these were not really duplications.  Rather, these various editions testified to a lengthy and sometimes disparate tradition of music making.  The scores reflected something about how that music was perceived at the place and time that each of them was produced.  There is a tendency, I suspect, to regard the newest or most expensive of them as likely the best edition, or the oldest of them as likely being the most directly connected to the composer; the scores in between (when there are any) often get completely ignored, sometimes even abused.  (“The Novello, Schirmer (ed. Albert Schweitzer) and Bornemann (ed. Marcel Dupré) complete sets [of Bach's organ works] present highly edited texts and are to be avoided as playing editions,” we are told.  But what if one is interested in playing Bach on a Cavaillé-Coll instrument, in the style of the French Romantics?  Dupré's edition is a vital window into that significant moment in Bach reception.)

My blog name—SETTLING SCORES—uses “settle” not in the sense of pronouncing judgement, but rather in the sense of structures sinking gradually into their foundations.  This isn’t pretty:  usually the plaster cracks and the floor becomes uneven and creaks when you walk on it.  But it is inevitable, unless you raze the building and start over.  I want to use the blog to think stratigraphically about musical texts—not necessarily the most recent, not necessarily the oldest, not necessarily (indeed ever) the whole picture.  

Take the case of Mussorsgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which for many years was known only in intrusively edited versions (deriving from the sweeping changes made by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who published it soon after the composer’s death), or in orchestrations which used those versions as their point of departure.  (The long crescendo of “Bydlo”—suggesting the slow approach of the ox cart—was not in Mussorgsky’s autograph, which is ff from the start.)  Even after the “uncorrected” readings from the autograph were published, they have by no means entirely supplanted the Rimsky-Korsakov version.  Should they?  Should the “false” version be banished even it if has proven to be musically effective for performers and audiences who didn’t know the original?  Is that performance tradition invalidated (and with it Ravel’s orchestration, for example) because we know that it was not the composer’s idea?  To indulge in groundless speculation, who knows in what ways Mussorgsky might have revised the work had he lived longer?  The autograph is authoritative; is it definitive?  And—seeking the death of the author—what gives him the final say anyway?  

What about Bach’s keyboard transcriptions of (for example) Vivaldi’s concertos?  Very often Bach’s texts depart creatively from the original—in such ways that one could not readily import Bach’s revisions into Vivaldi’s (even if one wanted to).  But every now and then Bach—or his source—seems to have perceived a “mistake” that warranted “correction.”  The examples below compare the Etienne Roger first edition parts of L’estro armonico (the D minor concerto for two violins, Op. 3 no. 11, in the Largo e spiccato section) with Bach’s transcription.  Vivaldi’s autograph is lost, and so it is out of consideration.  Vivaldi editions follow Roger with the unambiguous E for note no. 8 in the example, although it is a dissonant melodic leap (tritone) to an unresolved harmonic dissonance.  Bach’s reading (BWV 596; see his MS here) is an unambiguous D (although admittedly he also thickened the texture here, adding the D to a new accompanimental voice here:  Vivaldi has only G and F)—altogether more conventional, and thus perhaps less interesting.  The two versions of this work are conceptually distinct pieces, but we might imagine performers using one to affect their interpretation of the other.  I haven’t noticed any organists trying to import (restore?) Vivaldi’s E against Bach’s full harmony, nor have I seen a Bach edition that “corrects” Bach by printing the E; but I wonder if any violinists have used Bach’s D as a less jarring alternative?  Why not?  It has eighteenth century credibility from the very highest quarter.
Source:  detail of screenshot p. 16 of Roger's Violino primo part, scanned as
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/71/IMSLP52255-PMLP06105-Op.3_7-12.pdf  (pdf p. 18);
and my transcription of Bach’s MS, although the note in question is reflected in the NBA and every edition I have checked.
These are the sorts of things I want to think aloud about; if it interests you, stick around.  I aim to post on the 1st and 15th of each month.

I staged the picture for the blog nameplate, but it hadn’t occurred to me until later that it is a pretty good representation of the sorts of musics I expect to show up in these posts:  of the eleven volumes visible (each devoted to a single composer), five contain eighteenth-century repertoire, four contain nineteenth-century, and two twentieth-century; although Germanic repertoire leads (six out of eleven), there is also representation from England, France, Italy, and the Soviet Union.  Solo keyboard, chamber, symphonic, stage, and choral/orchestral repertory are all represented.  These composers are all European men (my apologies); and they are all dead (although that may be unavoidable, given that my topic demands some textual tradition to have something to write about).  Other composers (earlier and later), other traditions and editions, other sorts of problems will show up (I considered including The Beatles:  The Complete Scores, but it took up too much space); still, I think this probably is a good sense of what will be the main focus.  You have been warned.