THE ROLE OF THE MUSIC EDITOR
Dr Valerie Langfield, Music Editor: Robin Hood
The release of the CD of Macfarren’s Robin Hood [review],
offers an opportunity to consider the work of the music editor
which, in the context of this long-forgotten opera, was considerable.
The role of music editor is often misunderstood: an opera that
has been performed a great deal, over many decades, often acquires
a certain performance history, a way of doing it that does not
necessarily reflect the composer’s original intentions – perhaps
the parts have been copied many times, and have mutated in the
process, like Chinese whispers. If the original version is restored,
the shock, to those who believe they know how the work should
sound, can cause considerable argument and controversy, when
it should surely be the aspiration to recreate the composer’s
intentions as faithfully as possible, a task for which the musicologist
is eminently qualified.
In the case of obscure operas, the difficulty is certainly much
less, but difficulties there can certainly still be. I’m addressing
here some of the issues when making a new edition of an unfamiliar
work for stage or concert performance, or for recording, by
professionals or amateurs.
With an unknown work, it is, frankly, unlikely to be recorded
twice, so it is doubly, trebly important to do it correctly,
to get as close to the composer’s original intentions as possible,
and to produce the edition with musical integrity and meticulous
accuracy, so that the audience knows they really are hearing
what the composer wrote, and judge it accordingly. There is
no room for carelessness or mediocrity!
In the first place, you have to have source material. A score
is preferable, but sometimes this no longer exists, and you
must work from the parts. These have been copied from the score.
You may have, for example, several copies of the first violin
part, and they may differ slightly – the notes may broadly be
correct, but performance directions may vary, and if it is not
possible to tell which is the oldest copy, who is to say which
is the most authentic? Sometimes comparison with other parts
provides the clue, but sometimes it is necessary to make a musical
judgment. Sometimes cuts have been made and the parts have ‘paste-overs’
– extracts ranging from one to very many bars, where the notes
have been covered over by – usually - tissue paper. The editor
has to try to read through the paste-overs - sometimes with
the aid of a torch! - so as to restore the cuts; one might also
wonder why the cuts have been made. Is this because the composer
has had second thoughts, and the cut version is preferable?
Or have they been made because the manager wanted to squeeze
two performances of the work into one evening, thereby increasing
Often the notes are hard to read. If you are working from parts
and the opera has been frequently performed, the bottom corners
have sometimes been torn off through heavy usage, destroying
some of the music in the process. The players may have repaired
the corners, but not always, and if they have, they may have
written in what are clearly wrong notes. It is necessary to
compare the part with what is going on in the rest of the orchestra
to determine the best solution. It’s not enough to say, ‘Well,
that’ll fit, so that’ll do’. That’s sloppy and unsatisfactory.
At every stage, it is crucial to decide what to do that will
most faithfully present what the composer wrote. Where the editor
does have to make any kind of alteration to the score, it needs
to be indicated by the use of square brackets, so that the conductor
and players – and indeed, any later users of the parts – know
exactly what the composer did, and what the editor has suggested.
Preparing a new score is not simply a matter of copy-typing.
If working from the score, it can be found that the composer
has made a mistake, a slip, and the editor must try to judge
what was really meant and make a suitable suggestion. Even when
the notes are all transcribed, there is plenty more to do. In
the 19th century, music was written for horns with
crooks. These days, valved horns in F are the standard – that
is, the player reads and plays a C and it comes out as the F
below. This is what is known as a transposing instrument. But
before valved horns were widely available, a different length
of tubing, a crook, had to be inserted, to allow the horn to
produce a different range of notes. The score or part indicates
that the player is to change crook to put it in some other key
- and it could be any key - and although horn players can transpose,
it is kinder and more reliable if the editor re-writes the part
so that, assuming it will be played on a modern horn, it is
all now for horn in F, no matter what it was written for originally.
I like to indicate what the original transposition was, so that
the player knows how the part ‘sat’ in its original form. Some
of the transpositions are unclear – the player may be instructed
to change to a horn in A – the player plays a C and it comes
out as the A below, or, if it’s a horn bassa, the A an octave
below that. There is not always an indication of which horn
in A is required, high or low, and therefore what the concert
pitch is. It can only be determined by looking at the resulting
harmonies, coupled with a knowledge of horn usage at the time,
and knowledge of how that particular composer worked. This is
specialised, and the editor must be thoroughly at home with
the rules of harmony as perceived in the 19th century.
This all needs to be sorted out when preparing the score – and
certainly before rehearsals start. There are similar problems
with trumpets – some trumpets ‘in G’ mean the G below the C,
some the G above. Guesswork is not an option.
Timpani in the mid-19th century were tuned to the
tonic and dominant notes of the key of the number being set.
Various devices for re-tuning timpani quickly were being developed
but these were not used with any regularity until later in the
century. Modern timpani have pedals which enable very rapid
re-tuning and it is therefore possible to adjust the timpani
part so that the notes fit better harmonically than with just
the basic tonic and dominant. But it’s helpful to provide both
the original part and the adjusted part, so that the choice
can be maintained according to musical taste, and sound.
The brass instruments of the day had a narrower bore than modern
instruments and this can cause real headaches when deciding
what instruments to use in a modern performance. Many composers
wrote for four horns, two trumpets or cornets, three trombones
(alto, tenor and bass, or two tenors and a bass) and a serpent
or an ophicleide. This sounds heavy, and indeed can be, so that
there can be a case for compromise, if original instruments
are not available. In this situation, the ideal way is arguably
to transcribe the original instruments and perhaps use an alto,
two tenor trombones and a bass trombone, but, if the resulting
sound is still likely to be too thick, offer an alternative
version, where the three trombones and low brass line are re-arranged
onto just three instruments, to maintain the harmonic integrity,
while retaining the lighter sound of the original. This is delicate
ground and can only be considered on a case by case basis; the
primary requirement is to take the original instrumentation,
as the fixed point.
Even then, the work is far from done. It must be checked, checked,
and checked again. Correcting errors in rehearsal wastes valuable
time, so mistakes found at score preparation stage will save
a great deal of irritation later! Rehearsal letters and band
cues must be put in. Parts must be formatted so that page turns
come at convenient places. Everything should be consistent in
appearance – lack of care at this stage sends out negative signals.
It is a kindness, too, to the conductor and the players if their
copies are through-paginated and indexed; this is tedious and
fiddly work, but is much appreciated by all concerned and the
orchestra will respond positively!
If time is so short that a team of assistants has to be engaged,
it is essential that all of them share the same commitment to
fidelity and accuracy. Even if they themselves are not specialists
in the field, it goes without saying that they must observe
the editorial guidelines, so that the general editor, having
the detailed musical knowledge of the period, the instruments,
editorial practice, and indeed of the software, can co-ordinate
The underlying principle must always be to strive to be as faithful
as possible to the composer’s original intention. It is painstaking,
rigorous work, requiring great concentration and attention to
detail, but if it is done thoroughly, the end result is one
where the listener can trust that the work has been done with
absolute integrity, and enjoy the music all the more.
© 2011 Dr Valerie Langfield