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THE ROLE OF THE MUSIC EDITOR
 
by
 
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 revenue?
 
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 appropriately.
 
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
 
rcq@minuet.demon.co.uk
www.rogerquilter.co.uk


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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