Why should we assume a priori that any score prepared some centuries ago by one musician for another musician to play from cannot be used by a musician today without the intervention of someone (often a non-musician) with a Ph.D. in musicology? Why does the score first have to be entirely rewritten in some other form and accompanied by a lengthy critical report that can only be understood by someone else with a Ph.D. in musicology?
|SOURCE: screenshoot of Facebook group post (June 26, 2022); poster name and profile picture redacted|
Today this blog turns six years old. My original intent was to get to about fifty posts, posting twice a month for two years. But it has slowed to a trickle. With a change of jobs and then the more crowded schedule imposed by a global pandemic, it has taken me six years to reach the intended scope, and yet the list of topics that I scrawled in the summer of 2016 is not yet exhausted. Today’s topic is from that list; it came to mind again this past February with the death of composer George Crumb (1929-2022).
There’s nothing quite like examining one of Crumb’s scores—especially those which require an oversize format to be legible at all. His published scores very often bear this notice:
|SOURCE: found in a considerable number of Crumb scores; this is scanned from the title page of Mundis Canis (Edition Peters, 2000).|
With good reason: his notation is meticulously clean, and his innovative and idiosyncratic graphic notation would be challenging for a professional copyist/engraver to reproduce (which would add substantially to the cost of publishing the music). If you haven’t seen any of it, just google george crumb graphic notation; sure, you’ll also get some non-Crumb images, but you will quickly get a sense of what he accomplished. (Here’s a tribute that appeared in the Washington Post and has remained on my desk for several months to remind me to write this post.) Crumb reminded me of this long-delayed post because he effectively bypassed an editor: he cut out the middleman, with his carefully prepared fair-copy scores becoming the unmediated text for the performers’ eyes.
That sounds like a good idea: no interfering editor meddling with the text. And I have sometimes taken editors to task for overreach; even for making things too easy (in a way, like subverting the teaching of cursive by putting everything in print). But I’m not in the least ready to dispense with the what a good editor offers us.
I remember very clearly a particular moment on an afternoon in the autumn of 1997. It was in my first semester in graduate school, and my classmates and I were in a seminar about Haydn’s string quartets. The professor was at the time finishing up a volume of some of the quartets for JHW—Joseph Haydn Werke, the (still ongoing) complete critical edition of Haydn's works. One very important thing I learned from that seminar was to never assume I knew “what the composer wrote,” based on whatever edition I was using. The JHW is actually among the most scrupulous of the 20th-century critical edition projects to give a pretty clear indication within the musical text of what the principal source really shows. The edition uses a complicated series of brackets: < > angle brackets to indicate material which the editor has filled in following Haydn's shorthand instructions in the autograph score; ( ) rounded brackets to indicate something that is lacking in the principal source but is supplied from a source that is right below it in the chain of textual authority, like performance parts prepared by one of Haydn’s copyists; and [ ] square brackets to indicate something that the editor has added by analogy with some other passage or in order to spell out something musically necessary. Taking an example almost at random, here is the first system of the musical text of Symphony no. 46 as it appears in JHW, although I have highlighted these distinctions in different colors:
|SOURCE: scan (detail) of the opening of Haydn's Symphony no. 46, as it appears in JHW series I, volume 6 ("Sinfonien 1767-1772"), ed. C-G. Stellan Mörner, p. 104; I have added color highlighting.|
The orange passages (indicated in the edition by angle brackets) are realizations of Haydn’s abbreviated instructions for the second violins to double the firsts; the markings highlighted in blue (indicated by the rounded brackets) do not appear in Haydn’s autograph at all but are taken from the most authoritative set of parts. (Notice that the initial f dynamic is assumed in the autograph, but made explicit in the parts—except for the horns, who maybe never have to be told to play forte.) The green markings (indicated by the square brackets) are not found in the first or second tier of sources, but were deemed by the editor to be intended or otherwise necessary. All of this is clearly marked on the published score itself, without even having to turn to the critical report (which gives further details of Haydn’s corrections and second thoughts, as well as other variant readings in the principal sources).
I forget what the particular issue was that afternoon in the Haydn quartet seminar, but when the class was reminded that we needed to know what Haydn wrote (not just what was presented in whatever edition we might have to hand), one of my classmates posited that the ideal music library would comprise high-resolution scans of every source: then we could all see exactly what was on the page—not just of a composer’s manuscript, but of all the copyists’ scores and parts, and even all the early editions. Then we would not have to take anyone else’s word for it (as even a critical commentary gives one only the information an editor bothers to relay, and sometimes it may be in error).
My reaction at the time: Wouldn’t this just compel us all to reinvent the wheel every time?
A few years after this conversation came sites like Bach Digital: such portals have the potential of fulfilling my classmate’s wish, with high-resolutions scans not just of autographs, but often a range of derivative sources too—and with no limit to how many sources might be uploaded in the future. Or take the Online Chopin Variorum Edition—a misnomer, since there is really no editorial authority producing an edited text. These resources encourage a see-for-yourself approach, even maybe a do-it-yourself approach, and I heartily approve making such resources available beyond the walls of the libraries and other holdings in which they are found. But do the users of such sites know how to read them? We are making the materials of editing available without any instruction of what it means.
In an earlier post, I strongly criticized a particular “urtext” edition of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations because of its amateurish assumption that it was presenting the Holy Grail (i.e., Bach’s intended text), while the editor had unknowingly taken a shortcut that undermined his claim. And the unknowingly is the issue: when we don’t know what we don’t know, we don’t really know what we’re doing.
Take this example, from a scan of Beethoven’s autograph of his Septet, op. 20, very near the end of the first movement. The top stave is the clarinet, and below that the horn.
|SOURCE: (cropped) scan of Beethoven's autograph of the Septet, op. 20 (held in the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Krakow), available on the ISMLP as #774464 and #774465. This detail (showing bb. 271–273) comes from the upper right corner of p. 25 (which appears as scan p 15 of $774464).|
The last note in the clarinet staff is clearly marked c-natural. The natural is ostensibly superfluous, as the key signature for a b-flat clarinet in a movement in e-flat major would be just one flat. Thus it is no surprise that this accidental is eliminated in the new Beethoven Werke edition (ed. Egon Voss, 2008).
|SOURCE: detail of BW IV/I: Kammermusik mit Blasintrumenten, p. 25.|
|SOURCE: detail of p. 95 of Beethoven: Klavier Trios III, ed Friedhelm Klugmann (Henle, 1968), showing bb. 271–273 of the first movement of op. 38.|
|SOURCE: detail of p. 60 of the first edition of Beethoven, Symphony no. 3 (Cianchettini and Sperati, 1809), taken from scan available at https://www.beethoven.de/en/media/view/4716012494651392/scan/61; this shows bb. 139-144 of the second movement.|
Surely the clarinets and the violas should be in unison; the viola b-natural would need to be transposed as c-sharp for the clarinets, and yet the same natural persists. Del Mar has observed the same pattern with horns, for example the dubious f-flat that occurs in the fourth movement of the Septet. Using the clef-substitution method for e-flat horn, Beethoven would have imagined a bass clef on this stave, and the flat is thus coming from the intended sounding a-flat. Again the argument is that what Beethoven meant is not what he wrote (which should have been f-natural), but we need an experienced editor to recognize that; a facsimile won’t clue us in.
|SOURCE: (cropped) scan of Beethoven's autograph of the Septet, op. 20; This detail (showing bb. 100–102 of the fourth movement) comes from the upper right corner of p.  (which appears as scan p 7 of IMSLP #774465).|
|SOURCE: cropped scan from Bach Digital of P 234, p. 48 (detail), showing BWV 1054/iii, bb. 77-87.|
That is not to say, of course, that Bach intended anyone (other than himself?) to perform directly from this score. But what of a text from the composer’s hand that is intended to be the performance copy? This brings up the Facebook group post above: “Why don’t composers just do their own engraving [recte computer-setting] and page layout?” Cut out the middleman—like George Crumb, or (for that matter) Wagner.
- Composing: originating and finalizing musical ideas;
- Notating: getting those ideas into a graphic form comprehensible by others;
- Editing: encompassing a wide variety of activities, but essentially amounting to tweaking the notated text (ideally in dialogue with the composer) to ensure that it presents what is meant; Ralph Vaughan Williams referred to this as “washing its face,” and his sometime assistant Roy Douglas has written an illuminating account of such activity;
- Setting: actually getting this text into a form that can be mechanically printed and/or distributed; and
- Reading/Interpreting/Performing: the “end user”(?) is presumably a performer, scholar, or listener.
|SOURCE: detail of scan of Judith Weir, King Harald's Saga (Novello, 1982), p. 6.|