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01 October 2016

5. “What's the best edition of ________?”

Every now and then a student will come down the hall to my office—away, that is, from the mire of applied studies and into the transcendent world of musicological speculation (... or so I sometimes would like it to seem)and say:  "Prof. X told me to ask you what edition I should get of _________."

It doesnt happen all that often.  Usually Prof. X tells the student what edition to buy, so they never come to see me.  As before in this blog, I turn to the words of Walter Emery:
The ordinary musician does not buy an edition because it is good; as he does not know how editing is done, he cannot tell whether an edition is good or bad.  He buys an edition because its title-page bears a famous name or the magic word Urtext:  or because it has a pretty cover:  or, more likely, because it is sixpence cheaper than any other:  or again, because his teacher has told him to (which means only that the teacher was told to buy it by his teacher, has used it for twenty years, and has got used to the look of it).  [pp. 7f.]
In a very interesting and useful article that deals with edition selection as a teaching moment, Rachel E. Scott gives an anecdote which fulfills Emery's worst fears:
As a freshman vocal performance major, my voice teacher assigned me “Le Violette” by Alessandro Scarlatti. The following week I naively showed up for my lesson with my shiny new 26 Italian Songs and Arias: An Authoritative Edition Based on Authentic Sources. I quickly learned that my “Le Violette” was not her “Le Violette.” My professor rejected my anthology, pulled out Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and declared that the accompaniment in my edition was “just awful.” Not only are the accompaniments very different, but the vocal line is also slightly different. In short, the two editions presented two very different pieces.  While this experience certainly opened my eyes to the existence of different editions, it did not provide a solution to the problem. I did not understand that my teacher’s preference was based on tradition and not on the quality of the editorial work....  [pp. 133f.]
No doubt this scenario has repeated itself countless times.

Sometimes a teacher might think they are recommending the best edition simply because the publisher has a good reputation.  (See for example this recent post by violinist Phillipe Quint (Usually I rely on two editions:  Henle and Barenreiter).)  Certainly when I was studying piano 20+ years ago, Henle seemed to have sewn up the market, despite a wide variety in the quality of their backlista problem that has been rectified to a significant extent as new editions have superseded many old ones.

Judging from Google searches, the perennial question of which edition to buy has migrated to various internet forums.  Typical of many hits that came up was this one:
SOURCE:  cropped screenshot of
(accessed 30 Sept. 2016)
There is much to read between the lines here.  The teacher said urtext so that a student would have a text free from interpretive interpolations (mainly, I imagine, slurs); the teacher didnt specify which, as the various urtexts of the Bach English Suites do look pretty much the same.  The student knows the word urtext has to be on the cover and has noticed that this increases the pricemoney which it would probably be more enjoyable to spend elsewhere.  The first responder points out that the BG edition is urtext in the sense that the teacher probably wants.  The estimate of the quality is attributed to they (they saya vile phrase), followed by recourse to Wikipedia.  There is no assertion of an edition being good for x reason or bad for y reason.  And who can say?

Indeed, who can say?  Very few people actually spend their time looking at multiple editions of the same works, still less comparing multiple editions to their sources and (if present) the editorial remarks.  As has been brought home to me when reviewing editions, I simply dont have enough information to verify that the editor has done the work properly.  Unless I have all the sources in front of me and can do the editors work over again, I have to take the editors word that the edition is what it claims to be.  True, I can talk about methodological problems (particularly sources not consulted) or editorial policies that I find disagreeable, but otherwise I am only barely qualified to offer an opinion.  And I suspect this is the case for most professionals (except perhaps for the repertoire at the very center of our interest).

Musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason calls her admirable blog Not another music history cliché!  I wish someone would write one called Not another uncritical review!  These are easy to spot, as they are almost invariably glowing reviews, and they usually conclude with a formulation like It is handsomely bound and will make an attractive addition to your shelves.  While these tend not to be by musicologists, they do tend to be published in sources more readily available to the average musician, and thus are much more significant in terms of their influence.  There are some, however, who have dealt explicitly with comparing editions, not just reviewing a new edition in a vacuum.  Judging from my RILM and Google searches, many of these are in practical periodicals (The Strad, Clavier, and the like), where they would be most useful to teachers.  This topic also seems to be a frequent topic for DMA dissertations.

I don't believe in best editions, but I've certainly seen some bad ones.  I also am familiar with the gnawing sense that I don't know enough to evaluate what is in my hands.   And so I  propose a crowd-sourced bibliography.  I welcome citations for articles/chapters/blogposts/etc. that compare different editions (i.e., not just reviews of a new edition).  With the rise of the IMSLP and students use of it, these need not necessarily focus on new editions.  The old editions are ever with usand I think that is a very good thing.  Many are superb.  (They also have the virtue of printing more music per page, and so have fewer page turns.  If a requirement for best edition is practicality, page turns might rank pretty high.)  I have put a new tab on the blog for this project so that it will be readily available; send me citations through the contact form and I will gladly add them to the list:  articles, books, blogposts, webforum posts, whatever.