Music History Research Guide: How to Identify Scholarly Editions of Music

basics of research for music history


Professors teaching applied music lessons frequently send students to the library to find "Urtext" editions of the pieces of music they assign. "Scholarly edition" might be a more appropriate term. "Urtext" is a loan word from German that is often misunderstood. Essentially it indicates an edition that comes as close as possible to the original text of a work. For the field of music, this means that it comes as close as possible to the composer's original score. The best source for preparing such an edition would of course be the composer's manuscript, which would be the primary source. If the manuscript no longer exists, an early printed edition might serve as a primary source.

Spotting such a scholarly edition is similar to spotting a scholarly article. A scholarly edition will include a critical report. In this report, its editors provide footnotes or endnotes explaining why they made certain editorial decisions in passages that may be controversial or subject to varying interpretations. These notes show the editors' good faith in trying to replicate the composer's intentions as best they can. 

Certain music publishers have earned high reputations for providing carefully-researched scholarly editions prepared by world-class scholars. Some of these publishers are responsible for the sets of collected works that offer particularly excellent editions of virtually everything certain composers ever wrote. Just seeing such a publisher's name on the title page of a score makes it likely that a high-quality scholarly edition is within.

On the other hand, certain publishers have earned poor reputations for failing to apply high standards to their editions. Seeing their names on title pages should make students wary of using them for their university lessons.

Music history students often need to find scholarly editions for their research projects. They too need to be adept at identifying them. This will sometimes involve comparing different editors' interpretations of the same work. Such studies can be helpful in teaching these students how to make scholarly editions of their own. 

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