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MUSC255: Music History Since 1750: Finding and Evaluating Musical Editions

What makes some editions of music better than others?

A good edition of music conveys as closely as possible the composer’s intentions. Editors sift through a variety of musical sources and other evidence to determine those intentions. In the edition they identify their sources and make clear their reasons for choosing a particular reading in cases where the correct reading is in dispute. Ideally, they also include a critical report that establishes the relationship among those sources and the basis for their editorial choices. Critical reports are either appended to the back of a volume or issued as a separate volume.

 

The original manuscript score of a work in the composer’s own hand—known as the holograph, the autograph score, or simply the autograph—is usually the most reliable guide to a composer’s intentions. The autograph score of many works, however, has not survived. And even when it is available, it is by no means infallible. Composers, after all, make mistakes. Considering how complicated and intricate a four-movement symphony is, for example, it shouldn’t be surprising that the composer of one might occasionally write, say, a natural sign where a sharp sign was clearly intended, or forget to include a sharp sign altogether. Editors would not be doing their job simply to perpetuate such mistakes. Composers also take shortcuts, such as marking the phrasing of a frequently repeated figure only the first two or three times it occurs. Editors then must decide whether or not to apply that same phrasing to all subsequent occurrences. Composers also change their minds. The autograph score and the first edition of Mozart’s six string quartets dedicated to Haydn are significantly different. Mozart was almost certainly involved with the production of this first edition, and in the process of seeing it into print, he appears to have had second thoughts about certain details of tempo, articulation, and other matters. Mozart’s participation in the publication process makes the first edition an authoritative source, in this case one that is arguably more important than the autograph.

Yet even an authoritative first edition is not necessarily the last word. Hector Berlioz, for instance, tinkered with matters of orchestration repeatedly after hearing his works in performance, even after a work had been published, and he wrote about these changes in some of his letters. Anton Bruckner, in turn, undertook massive revisions of many of his symphonies. Which version represents a composer’s final thoughts on any given passage? Conscientious editors have to identify and evaluate carefully all relevant sources of a particular work—autograph, early copies, first editions, later editions, comments in the composer’s correspondence—to make a critical edition of that work. What is critical about these editions is the editor’s attitude toward all the sources. Editors do not merely accept, uncritically, whatever sources happen to be the earliest or most widely disseminated, but rather subject each source to careful scrutiny.

Unfortunately, bad editions have a way of perpetuating themselves. The least expensive and most widely available edition of the Opus 33 quartets today is a reprint, an exact photographic reproduction, of an edition of these works published in the late 19th century, prepared by a German scholar named Wilhelm Altmann. This is an uncritical edition: Altmann provides no indication of his sources. It is, however, clearly based on Hummel’s unreliable early-19th-century edition. And because it is considerably less expensive, musicians are more likely to buy Altmann’s edition than a critical edition of the quartets published as part of Haydn’s complete works by the Haydn-Institut in Cologne, Germany. Thus Hummel’s corrupt edition remains with us even today.

A note of caution: Many editions of music proclaim themselves as “Urtext” editions. Urtext is a German word that means “original text.” Some of these self-proclaimed Urtext editions are in fact very carefully prepared critical editions, but others are not. The word itself has been used so indiscriminately that it is difficult to know when it really means something and when it is being used as a label to sell an item. Be critical in choosing an edition.

For an example of what can result from uncritical editing, consider the case of the six string quartets by Joseph Haydn now known as Opus 33. The autograph score of these quartets no longer exists. Haydn probably gave it to his Viennese publisher, Artaria, who used it to engrave the first edition in 1782. This edition consisted of a set of parts; no full score of the work was issued until the early 19th century. The publisher then probably either threw the manuscript away or reused it for packaging. (Composer’s autographs were not perceived as valuable until a decade or so later, and even then publishers continued to be astonishingly cavalier with them.) Artaria’s first edition, then, is the most reliable source we have for Opus 33. We know through Haydn’s correspondence that he worked with Artaria in producing this edition, and for this reason we can call it an authoritative source. Surviving copies of this edition, however, are exceedingly rare, probably because few were printed and because people would have used them mostly at home the way we use sheet music today.

Another edition, published a few years later by Hummel of Amsterdam, in contrast, seems to have been widely available. This edition was the first to designate the quartets as Opus 33. It is, however, thoroughly unreliable, beginning with the opus number, which is different from the one that appears on Artaria’s authoritative edition. Haydn had nothing to do with the Hummel edition; he received no payment for it and would certainly have been outraged to have his work pirated. Although it was considered unethical in Haydn’s time for a publisher to print a living composer’s music without any payment, the practice was nonetheless common until the emergence of effective copyright laws in the late 19th century.

What, then, was the source for Hummel’s edition? We cannot know for sure, but it was clearly corrupt, both ethically and textually. One possible scenario is that these corruptions originated with one of Haydn’s copyists, who in an attempt to earn some extra money made an unauthorized additional copy, which he then sold to any unscrupulous publisher, like Hummel, who was willing to pay the right price. Haydn was aware of this practice and complained about it on more than one occasion, but he could do little to stop it. Because these unauthorized copies had to be made quickly and surreptitiously, they were likely to contain errors. Another possible scenario is that the corruption came from Hummel himself or someone working for him. Troubled by the strange opening in the first movement of op. 33, no. 1, Hummel “corrected” it by filling in what he thought were missing harmonies. The result is musically disastrous. 

The opening of the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet op. 33, no. 1, as it appears in Artaria's authoritative first edition

The opening of the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet op. 33, no. 1, as it appears in Hummel's edition. Contains slight differences in notation from Artaria version including double stops in the violin 2, rhythmic notation in the violin 1, and articulation

Unfortunately, bad editions have a way of perpetuating themselves. The least expensive and most widely available edition of the Opus 33 quartets today is a reprint, an exact photographic reproduction, of an edition of these works published in the late 19th century, prepared by a German scholar named Wilhelm Altmann. This is an uncritical edition: Altmann provides no indication of his sources. It is, however, clearly based on Hummel’s unreliable early-19th-century edition. And because it is considerably less expensive, musicians are more likely to buy Altmann’s edition than a critical edition of the quartets published as part of Haydn’s complete works by the Haydn-Institut in Cologne, Germany. Thus Hummel’s corrupt edition remains with us even today.

 

A note of caution: Many editions of music proclaim themselves as “Urtext” editions. Urtext is a German word that means “original text.” Some of these self-proclaimed Urtext editions are in fact very carefully prepared critical editions, but others are not. The word itself has been used so indiscriminately that it is difficult to know when it really means something and when it is being used as a label to sell an item. Be critical in choosing an edition.

More Information About Scholarly Editions of Music

 

"Editions, historical," Grove Music Online article publication information

For more information about scholarly editions of music, see the article in Grove Music Online by Sydney Charles, et al

Editions

Performing Editions: These scores have been edited by publishers and teachers/performers to include fingerings, phrasing, and sometimes tempo indications. These editions range in quality, but you'll find that publishers such as Henle, Wiener Urtext, Breitkopf and Hartel (among others) tend to put out better editions than, for example, International.

 

 

Collected Works/Critical Editions: These scores have been compiled by scholarly editors to try to give the closest indication of what the composer truly intended. Their call numbers start with M3, followed by the first letter of the composer's last name (eg. M3.D for Debussy). Critical commentary (sometimes published as separate Critical Reports) is sometimes included, discussing any alterations in accidentals, notes, ornaments, etc. that the editors have made. The editors refer to any original or secondary sources available and also discuss whether the composer later made changes (such as notes or cuts, etc.). These editions are also sometimes called ‘Complete Editions’, 'Œuvres Complètes', or ‘Gesamtausgabe’.

Some majors composers -- like Mozart and Beethoven -- have more than one set of Collected Works. This is because previously unknown works were sometimes discovered after the collected edition was published, or works originally thought to be by a composer were later discovered to be spurious, that is, by a different composer. Another reason scholars assemble a new edition of a composer's works is because more reliable sources that had previously been unavailable may have surfaced after publication of the edition.

Monuments or Denkmäler: Are collected editions that focus on music of a particular country, region, or genre rather than by a single composer. Examples are Recent Researches in the Music of the Classical Era and Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich. Call numbers for monuments start with M2 followed by the first letter of the series title (eg. M2.R, M2.D)

Collected editions for composers are located in the first several rows of the Music Library Stacks (through the black door in the Reference Room). Once you become familiar with the section you can scan it to find the set you are looking for, but otherwise you'll need to find the call number for the composer's set you are interested in. You can search the library catalog with the title you find in Grove, or you can simply do a keyword search for [composer name] and "works". This isn't precise, but will give you something to start with.

  • Last Updated: Jan 26, 2021 11:00 AM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.unc.edu/MUSC255Bonds