A Good Musical Edition: Responsibility and Resource.

A Good Musical Edition


Prolegomena to a correct approach to ancient music

The practice of ancient music[1] imposes, more than other repertoires, a reflection on the quality of editions and on the awareness demanded from those who relate to a sonorous, theoretical and distant notational world. In this contribution I seek to offer some lines for orientating oneself in the variegated and dangerous sea of editions: a reflection on horseback between rule of thumb and scientific rigour, valid and useful, at least in part, also for editions of music for the following centuries.

Some premises are indispensable. First point: one cannot face ancient repertoire without knowing enough of the language. A bit like saying: “do not drive a vehicle without knowing the rules of the road”. It seems like a discouraging recommendation, somewhat contradictory, with which to open the discussion. But music from past centuries – especially those written before the advent of modern notation and tonal language – require some fundamental knowledge regarding the usus scribendi (and legends) by composers/singers from a time long ago and sometimes with enigmatic characters[2]. Mensuralism[3], modality[4], solmisation[5], counterpoint[6], musica ficta[7]: are some of the terms that cannot be unknown to anyone entering the sector. Today, the bibliography on the subject is ample and detailed[8]: it only takes time to face it. It goes without saying that it is highly advisable to work on an edition without having the skills: a good execution that is based on a poor or misunderstood edition is worse than a mediocre execution that is historically informed and conducted on a precise and comprehensive edition.

Second point: a valid edition is more than a good transcription, but cannot ignore this. It cannot limit itself – to use the theories coined by the biblical scholar Eugene Nida – to a translation of formal equivalence[9]. In a work of translation, it is necessary to translate a text from one linguistic paradigm to another, without shady areas that allow the translator to escape the responsibility of choice and force the reader to try to replace the editor.  A transcription is an act of responsibility for those who draft it and must be a precious resource – faithful and transparent – for those who benefit from it. Whoever transcribes must, therefore, have a profound knowledge of the translated language, in the logic of a dynamic equivalence: that is to say, without betraying what the text says with full effectiveness of the new language[10]. Be wary of those who limit themselves to proposing a partial transliteration of the data, passing it off as ‘fidelity’: in reality, leaves the reader at the mercy of what is, in the best case, a partially diplomatic edition[11].

Third point: a critical edition is an intellectually honest and transparent operation, a work conducted according to serious and professional scientific criteria. Whoever prepares it must thus review all known and available evidence, collate them with care and choose an exemplary piece, indicating the variants, offering a complete critical apparatus of all useful information, specifying the editorial criteria, keeping the elements present in the original distinct from those added by the editor, preparing an edition of literary text (when necessary), and so on[12]. In summary: one must be able to offer the reader the possibility of traveling backward to the original. One must allow decisions to be made that depart from the editor (but not from the original data), evaluating the choices made in every single passage and eventually making others, not by arbitrary incompetence, but by freedom of interpretation of not unique data.

In concrete terms, it seems that we can highlight at least nine aspects that reveal a good edition, that have the ability of ‘speaking’ with clarity and precision.

1) An edition conducted with scruple and care allows, starting from the first page, to answer the question: “what do I have in my hands?” It presents with linearity with which we reason, clearly indicates the edition type, describes the evidence used (in print and manuscripts), making the initials RISM[13] (if registered) and the physical collocation useful to identify with certainty the single artifact, provides the editorial criteria mentioned above[14]. Regarding the edition of the musical text, the distinction between critical edition and practical edition, has no reason to exist at a professional level: a good critical edition must be instrumental for a proper musical practice, such as it is no longer acceptable to think that the latter could be based on ‘minor’ editions, that they are satisfied with a vulgate version[15].

2) Arriving at the transcripts, the arrangement of vocal parts present in the original must be replaced in the score and must always be preceded by a ‘window’ that shows (in diplomatic edition or in image format) the incipit of each part. This seems to me, even if the editorial criteria have been made explicit by their headquarters.

3) The use of modern clefs[16] appears to have become indispensable now. The reason, moreover, is certainly not flattering, having to search for it in the laziness of modern conductors/singers – also professionals – in confronting a system mistakenly considered difficult. It would be desirable, in my humble opinion, a return to the use of ancient clefs, at least for three reasons: 1) they are fully part of the modern notational system; 2) they make more evident the logic that guides the movement of individual voices in a certain ambitus; 3) they are an optimal pedagogical instrument for the development of reading and of understanding contrapuntal language. Of great use is, thus, the signaling, voice by voice, of the details of weaving, that allows immediate recognition of the required extension[17].

4) The mensural signs, also those that are found in contemporary semiography (for example C or ), must always be translated in modern phrases (2/2, 2/1, etc.)[18]. An edition that maintains these signs – their modern meaning far from the mensural one – reveals the lack of responsibility on the part of the editor, who must be aware of their formal and contextual meaning and correctly translate them.

5) The need to apply a transposition is indicated by the original clef system[19]. The transposition interval, however, is not taken for granted, almost mechanical[20], nor left entirely to the director: in fact, the geographical variability of the tuning fork comes into play[21]. The transcription must respect the original height of the voices. Personally, I consider an excellent service, however, to indicate a transposition interval suggested by musicological knowledge of the customs of the place of composition or destination of a work. Philology and executive practice deal with different objects – the text and sound gesture – , but well-thought and motivated indications are always a precious aid to grow a historically informed practice that looks to the context as well as to the text.

6) Only what is present in the original must appear in the score, without additions and without misunderstandings: suggestions by the editor must be placed above the line or elsewhere. In doubtful cases relating to musica ficta it is preferable not to include question marks, but make a choice, indicating the ambivalence of the situation in the critical apparatus: the reader will then decide whether or not to apply what is suggested. A special case where the rule is not applicable by the rule of a note above is represented with the sharp notation with the value of B durum[22]: this indication must be kept in the score, translated into the natural modern sign. In fact, this is an explicit alternation that cancels another implication in the modal context of solmisation[23].

7) The intermediate changes of mensura must always be accompanied with the indication of equivalence ratio figures between one section and another[24]. The eventual halving of the values in some sections is a choice to consider well: more useful in some cases, less in others, otherwise completely discouraged[25]. Ligaturae and colores must be respectively indicated with square brackets and angular strokes that enclose all the notes affected by the coloratura[26].

8) The lyrics must be placed under the musical line with care[27] and in ordinary font. The italic font specifies the text added in place of the repetition mark (ij), while the additions of the editor are indicated in brackets[28]. As for the linguistic variants, for common texts such as those of the Mass ordinary, the editio typica version prevails. For others, the discussion becomes more complex when frequently dealing with freer texts: in these cases, a section dedicated to the edition of the text must not be missing, where it addresses the problem.

9) Any Gregorian intonation – as in the case of psalms, Magnificat, Gloria, Credo, etc. -, and interventions in sung piano for pieces in alternatim, should be added by the editor in cases where they are taken for granted (or only hinted at) in the original[29]. In these cases it is mandatory to reference the historically and geographically relevant liturgical-musical sources, not to those used during other times and places. For example: it is not musicologically correct to analyze Josquin Desprez’s canti firmi by using the ‘returned’ melodies present in twentieth-century editions linked to the school of Solesmes or his disciples[30]. Often the research is not easy, but worthy to note an edition that does not confuse the plans and references the sources of the song, (presumably) stops close to the author under investigation.

At the end of this journey, I hope to have offered a synthetic track to confront the mare magnum of circulating musical editions. Untangling oneself from a forest of self made editions (often, more than anything else, badly made) is absolutely essential for any conductor who wants to work with ancient music in a serious and rigorous way. This does not mean that everything that circulates, also online, is to be discarded: there are excellent editions available for free by trained and generous editors, who freely share their labors, and others, titled and onerous, that surprisingly turn out to be inaccurate and pernicious. As always, the tools remain as follows: the choice and responsibility of their use lies with each of us, with conscience and attention.


Translated from the Italian by Grace Kim, USA

[1] In this contribution, the adjective ‘ancient’ refers, in particular, to the repertoire recorded in white mensural notation.

[2] See, for example, Katelijne Schiltz, Music and Riddle Culture in the Renassaince, Cambridge, 2015.

[3] See, to cite a few titles: Ruth I. DeFord, Tactus, Mensuration and Rythm in Renaissance Music, Cambridge, 2015; Anna Maria Busse Berger, Mensuration and Proportion Signs: Origin and Evolution, Oxford, 1993; Georges Houle, Meter in Music, 1600-1800, Bloomington, 1987.

[4] See: Frans Wiering, The Language of the Modes. Studies in the History of Polyphonic Modality, New York, 2001; Bernard Meier, I Modi della polifonia vocale classica. Descritti secondo le fonti, Lucca, 2015; Harold Powers, Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony, in «Journal of the American Musicological Society», Vol. 34, No. 3, 1981, pp.428-70; Harold Powers, From Psalmody to Tonality, in Tonal Structures in Early Music, edited by Cristle Collins Judd, New York, 2000, pp. 275-340; Cristle Collins Judd, Renassaince modal theory: theoretical, compositional, and editorial perspectives, in The Cambridge History of Western Music, op. cit., pp. 364-406.

[5] See: David E. Cohen, Notes, scales, and modes in the earlier Middle Ages, in The Cambridge History of Western Music, edited by Thomas Christensen, Cambridge, 2002, pp.307-63; Dolores Pesce, The Affinities and Medieval Transposition, Bloomington, 1987.

[6] See: Peter Schubert, Counterpoint pedagogy in the Renassaince, in The Cambridge History of Western Music, op. cit., pp. 503-33; Margaret Bent, Counterpoint, Composition and Musica Ficta, New York, 2002; Renato Dionisi–Bruno Zanolini, La tecnica del contrappunto vocale nel Cinquecento, Milano, 2001.

[7] See: Karol Berger, Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino, Cambridge, 1987; Margaret Bent, op. cit.

[8] See also: Willi Apel, La notazione della musica polifonica dal X al XVII secolo, Florence, 1984 (fundamental volume); Francesco R. Rossi, De musica mensurabilis. Manuale di notazione rinascimentale, Lucca, 2013 (with a more practical intent); Vania Dal Maso, Teoria e pratica della musica italiana del Rinascimento, Lucca, 2017 (a useful compedium of indications drawn by Italian treatises); Jessie Ann Owens, Composers at Work. The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600, Oxford, 1998 (interesting for the singular perspective).

[9] Eugene Nida – Charles. R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Leiden, 1969.

[10] Nida argued that a translation should: 1) respect the original meaning; 2) transmit the spirit; 3) use a simple and natural form of expression; 4) produce a response similar to that of the original text’s reader.

[11] It is the edition that “has the goal of exactly reproducing what one reads in a testimony, without editorial interventions” (Maria Caraci Vela, La filologia musicale. Istituzioni, storia, strumenti critici, vol. I, Lucca, 2015, p.230).

[12] See regarding this: Maria Caraci Vela, op. cit., 3 vols, (fundamental text for a global approach to the subject); La critica del testo musicale, edited by Maria Caraci Vela, Lucca, 1995; Problemi e metodi della filologia musicale. Tre tavole rotonde, edited by Stefanio Campagnolo, Lucca, 2000.

[13] Acronym for Répertoire International des Sources Musicales, the international organization founded in Paris in 1952 with the aim of documenting the most exhaustive musical sources in all the world.

[14] See Caraci Vela, op. cit., pp. 179-220.

[15] The refusal of vulgata, that is the textus receptus, or the text “in its most widespread and repeated form, that has not passed through the scrutiny of textual criticism” (Caraci Vela, op. cit., p. 242), is the first point of the stemmatic method formulated by Paul Maas in 1927.

[16] Sol2, Sol2 octave and Fa4.

[17] A very useful element, inexplicably disappeared in modern semiography, the custos: Those who sing in a choir know in how many occasions they miss it.

[18] With the equivalent division into bars by mediant beats between the staves, even better without breaking the values astride itself with the use of ligatures.  

[19] For example, the presence of little clefs in the place of natural clefs. See regarding this: Patrizio Barbieri, ‘Chiavette’ and Modal Transposition in Italian Practice (c. 1500-1837) “Recercare”, vol. 3, 1991, pp. 5–79; Andrew Johnstone, ‘High’ Clefs in Composition and Performance, “Early Music”, vol. 34, n. 1, 2006, pp. 29-53.

[20] In other words: it goes beyond the usual lowering of a fourth in the case of a flat key or a fifth in its absence.

[21] Between Piedmont and Rome, for example, the tuning fork positively varied by a minor third. Pietro Heredia in 1637 sent Missa XI.mi toni from Rome to Vercelli (once conserved at the Archivio Capitolare of Vercelli, then stolen and now only exists in photocopy). On the title page of the score, it specifies that the Mass, written (in Rome) in Effaut, will be sung (in Vercelli) in Desolre, pitch in which it is written is basso seguente, specifying that the voices will be lowered by a third, also in the case of execution without the organ.

[22] “One note above the semper canendum is fa” was the rule according to which, in solmisation, when the melody came out of a solo interval joined by the last note of the hexachord (la, in syllables or voces), the note was intended as a distant diatonic semitone preceding it, and therefore solmisized as fa.

[23] Which, it should be remembered, proceeds by hexachords and not by octaves.

[24] That is, the preceding figure x, on which the tactus is based, is now represented by the following figure y: “x = y”. An analogous indication of equivalence must be reported at each change, possibly overturned when it returns to the previous mensura.

[25] If it is applied, it obviously needs to be indicated in the critical apparatus. One can usefully point out in the score, for example, with the formula “n1 ex n2”, where n1 is the value of the note in the transcription (it is always better to indicate the value that refers to the tactus) and n2 the same value in the original. Today, for Renaissance repertoire, people tend to keep the original values.

[26] In the case of minor color, also the note (or notes) whose value is subtracted from the preceding one.  

[27] In ancient prints and manuscripts, the text is often summarily placed in a context in which the expert cantor was perfectly capable of adapting it extemporaneously to the music.  Today, it is up to the modern editor to carry out this operation in the editorial office, in compliance with the rules provided by ancient treaties (a useful summary of some authors is in Vania Dal Maso, op. cit., pp.298-305). There are editions, also by well-known professionals, who sometimes present an incorrect or imprecise collocation of the text, often without taking into account the presence or absence of the ligaturae, precious semiographic elements for the ancient cantor and the modern editor. 

[28] For example, in cases of a lacuna in the original.

[29] Obviously indicating, graphically and in the apparatus, that these are additions by the editor.

[30] As it appears in the prestigious New Josquin Edition (29 voll., Utrecht, 1987-2017), wherein the critical apparatus, relative to the Cantus prius factus of some compositions, is compared to the melodic version of the Antiphonale Monasticum – result of the work of the Solesmes monks, edited in 1934 – , accompanied by quotations from 13th century English codices, without investigating the possible sources from which Josquin could have drawn, perhaps at the time of its formation, between the 15th and 16th centuries.

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