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15 August 2016

2. Risky business

It’s not news that music is a risky business.  Even with the narrower field of musical text, there is an element of risk.  Certainly music publishers are now more than ever in a risky business:  they compete for what is apparently a diminishing number of customers, and this competition may be against free legal downloads even more than against other publishers.  For a composer, notation is itself risky—virtually every element fraught with potential misinterpretation.  If they choose for their music to be performed by live musicians (and that is no longer the no-brainer that it used to be), they must give up some degree of control of “their” music:  the score is the inevitable nexus between the person trying to get the musical material in and those who would get the material out.   And I find the issues that arise from that interface compelling.

Much of what I will write in this blog has been said before—sometimes, indeed, because I want to point out things others before me have said (and done) that deserve renewed attention.  One such example is a small booklet by Walter Emery, published in 1957 by Novello & Co.  He called it Editions and Musicians, but I think his subtitle says it all:
A survey of the duties of Practical Musicians and Editors towards the Classics

Emery can get preachy at times.  At times that is stimulating, at times perhaps a little tedious.  I appreciate every page of this book, even when I find that I disagree with him.  For example, Emery concludes his chapter “The Need for Editing” thus:
“The fact is that until an editor has done his work, and done it properly, no performer can safely play old music, no analyst can safely analyse it, and no historian or critic can safely assess it.  The editor’s work is the foundation on which all other musical and musicological activities are based.”  (p. 14)
Really?  I can remember a time when I would have endorsed every word of this, but no longer.  It is not that I am against good editions of music—on the contrary, even when they cost a bundle.  It is really the word “safely” that bothers me.  Implicit in it, I think, is the idea of a definitive conception of the piece in the composer’s head, and that we are obliged to try to get as close to that as we can before we do anything else.  Moreover, I think Emery would say that these other activities (performance, analysis, criticism) that occur without such a proper editorial foundation are doomed eventually to crumble.

I’m skeptical that such a definitive conception ever existed in any meaningful and permanent way, and even more skeptical that such an idea could be conveyed to anyone else.  Think of the composers—first-rate composers—who couldn’t leave well enough alone.  (Not just “well-enough”—we might sometimes tend to gush with phrases like “apparent perfection.”)  Chopin might be an extreme example of this:  not only was he praised for “ever different expression” (and “Chopin never played his own compositions alike twice,” etc.), but those remarks are consistent with the documentary record of his own manuscripts and the editions that flow from them (i.e., all sorts of authorized variant readings).  Even given the fascinating editorial collation that has been unfolding through the superb Online Chopin Variorum Edition, isn’t there perhaps just too much here for anyone to take in?  Must the establishment of every authentic Chopin text of a work be complete before anyone can “safely” (to use Emery’s word) perform or analyze or critique it?  Could Emery be satisfied if an authentic text (say, a copy of the first French edition of a work marked up by Chopin for his pupil Jane Stirling) was all that a performer had seen?  This is, of course, extremely improbable, given the glut of Chopin editions on the market, settled in domestic piano benches, littering cabinets and weighing down shelves.  When Emery writes of the need for editing, it is a need to redress a context dominated by editing that was not done “properly” (again Emery’s word).

Or consider J. S. Bach, for whom, as Christoph Wolff has put it, there was apparently “no such thing as ‘untouchable’ text,” evidenced by his changes (not just “corrections”) even to his published works, and his revisions and reworkings of  (for example) the cantatas as he reused them in a subsequent years.  These are often instances where it is difficult to argue one reading is better than the other (indeed, there a few cases, like the two versions of the Canonic Variations, BWV 769 and BWV 769a, when it is seems impossible to say definitively which version came first).

Or Mendelssohn—whose “Revisionskrankheit” was a chronic (fatal?) compulsion to tinker away endlessly at his completed works.  At some point in this blog I will eventually return to the case of Mendelssohn’s celebrated “Italian” Symphony—a work that until recently was known only in its first version; Mendelssohn’s second thoughts prompted him to rewrites of the last three movements; the first movement he ultimately deemed unredeemable.  All this notwithstanding, it is one of his most popular works with audiences, who don’t seem to have noticed how unredeemable it is.  But more on that later.

In my first post, I mentioned the very different manifestations of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition, diverging in many respects from the autograph score, but still holding a secure place in the repertoire of pianists and orchestras.  I’d guess that Emery would regard any performance of the Rimsky-Korsakov version (or the editions derived from it) as a travesty.  But what about when later minds uncover new ways of hearing a piece—and a composer even embraces those new readings?  (Think Bob Dylan’s response to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.”)

I have been delighted to see that the editorial principles behind the new Works of Gioachino Rossini (Bärenreiter) take into account not just the authorial conception of the works, but also these works in performance, accumulating non-authorial performance traditions.  The score of the recent edition of Il barbiere di Siviglia (ed. Patricia Brauner), for example, includes in appendices not only three substitute numbers Rossini composed for later productions, but also several vocal variants (i.e., ornamented versions) that are extant in Rossini’s hand in as many as three (differing) sources.
Source:  cropped scan of p. 504 of WGR score of Il barbiere... (Bärenreiter, 2009)
Beyond this, however, the critical commentary includes materials about the performance tradition not directly deriving from Rossini:  a) the libretto for a Neapolitan-dialect version with spoken dialogue, and b) an extensive essay (59 pages!) by Will Crutchfield on “Early Vocal Ornamentation.”  I think it is a pity that these gems lie in the comparative obscurity of the very pricey commentary volume.

Would Emery say that as these latter variants are not from Rossini (but rather from the early performance tradition), a “safe” performance would be no performance at all?  Or that analysis or critique would be meaningless because it doesn’t relate directly to the composer?

Then again, just because Chopin was known to interpret his music anew each time, he didn’t take just any pupil; should we read his varying instructions to them with similar caution?  His famous remark to Filtsch (“We each understand this remark differently, but go your own way, do as you feel, it can also be played that way”) could hardly be regarded as interpretive carte blanche for any pianist.  Still, there is a sense in which G. Thomas Tanselle’s conceptual distinction between the text of the work and the text of the document might be useful—another idea I will be returning to in later posts.

I find that I’m more willing to see more risky performances, ponder risky analyses, and read risky critiques.  The safe alternative seems embalmed (fossilized?) in an established text, when the text itself was never sufficient.  That said, inauthentic readings (when they are known) should be acknowledged as such.  The situation can become bizarre, such as an exchange prompted by David B. Levy’s review of a critical edition of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by Jonathan Del Mar (1996).  (Levy's review is “Urtext or Performing Edition?” in Beethoven Forum 9/2 (2002), pp. 225-232).  Del Mar’s edition is a remarkable accomplishment in many respects, but Levy is astonished to see Del Mar depart from an established reading to favor a variant that is admittedly authentic (mvt. I, b. 81; the D in flute and oboe, rather than the familiar reading of B-flat):
Source: detail (woodwinds only) of scan of p. 13 of Del Mar’s edition of Symphony no. 9 (Kassel:  Bärenreiter, 1996)
[Here is a performance of this moment with this text.]

This “new” (original) reading results in a curious discrepancy in the subsequent appearances of this figure, where there is no leap of a sixth.  (This isn’t really an issue of recomposition in the recapitulation, but rather a different conception of motivic unity.)  Yet, as Del Mar remarks in the critical commentary, this D appears in all sources (which for this instance means the autograph (below), five scores made by copyists, and the first edition score and parts (1826)).  Del Mar surmises that the Bb (which first appeared in the 1864 Breitkopf edition)
“… was apparently invented by analogy with 276/80,346 [later recurrences of the motive].  Yet Beethoven wrote d in both instruments in A, so it can hardly be a mistake.”  (p. 25)
Source:  detail of screenshot of http://beethoven.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/beethoven/pix/sinfonien/9/1/990/00000020.jpg  
(mm. 80-84 as in Beethoven’s autograph f. 8v.)

 Levy puzzles that Del Mar would depart from the reading that would support “many published analytical studies… [which] have drawn attention to the significance of the perfect fourth (and its inversion, the perfect fifth) not only within the first movement, but throughout the entire work” (p. 229).  Del Mar replies:
“… where I as a sensible musician have to judge that the reading in the authentic sources is inconceivable (no less)—and especially where I can show how the error could well have arisen—I will present the more likely text. But if it is conceivable, I have a duty to stick to what Beethoven wrote. So despite all published analytical studies—which inevitably were based on the text they had in front of them—I restore Beethoven’s D in movt. I, m.81. Sorry: if we subsequently find that the analysts’ text was faulty, their studies will have to be rewritten. That is quite simply inevitable, and to argue that we must print a text that accords with previously published analytical studies is obviously putting the cart before the horse.”  (p. 105)
No need, in my view, for these “risky” analyses to be “safely” re-written:  the analyses can account for the work as it came to be known.  More significantly they document an important aspect of reception history:  our(?) sense of what the product of a genius should manifest, with (in this instance) an organic unity of motivic development encompassing the whole work.  The altered B-flat is no less a part of Beethoven’s 9th symphony (i.e., the cultural property it has become) just because Beethoven didn't write it.  If, with Del Mar, we regard the B-flat as bad editorial judgment, we must now correct it; we can't eliminate the effects it has had over the years (and we could, if we chose, continue to play it and analyze it), but we do have to acknowledge that Beethoven didn't write it.  Those who disagree with Del Mar should still acknowledge that Beethoven didn't write it, but they may argue however they may that Beethoven meant it.

As my envoi, take this example from Emery (p. 19), who quotes Donald Francis Tovey’s hedging conclusion when faced with an (unknown) chromatic error in his text of the F# minor prelude from Bach’s WTC II: “a harmonic point of peculiar subtlety.”  But of course.  That’s what we expect from a genius, right?