Editors, editing and editions

What does an editor do? While the English word ‘editor’ has several meanings, the French, more precisely, define the sort of work done by editors such as Lionel Sawkins as ‘restitution et réalisation’ — ‘restoring’ the original work to reflect the composer’s intentions as far as is known, and ‘realising’, or filling in any missing sections or individual instrumental or vocal lines, using knowledge of the composer’s other works and of those of his contemporaries. [The French word ‘editeur’ is used for a publisher.]

The conscientious restorer of ‘old’ music considers a whole raft of matters musical, paleographical and literary, such as which manuscript score or set of parts or old printed edition is the most reliable source of a work, the paper on which the music is written or printed (watermarks may help to date it) as well as the different inks that may have been used (for these studies one has to examine the originals, wherever they may be, rather than photocopies). Bindings may indicate the origins of a source, and much may be learned from a study of the conditions at the court, chapel, church, or opera house where a work was first performed, such as how and where the singers and orchestra were placed when performing. All these need consideration before one can usefully begin work. Simply using a facsimile of one neatly-copied or clearly-printed source, or feeding it into the computer, may produce something only distantly related to what the composer actually had in mind. Such a source may have originated decades after it was composed and been corrupted at each stage of recopying. It may omit vital sections or vocal or instrumental lines, or even incorporate additions, or new voices or instruments by later well-intentioned ‘improvers’ or ‘modernisers’ (even Mozart sought to ‘improve’ Handel’s Messiah by re-orchestrating it).

An editor of ‘old’ music is occasionally rewarded by the rediscovery of a major work thought lost; such success requires the instincts and persistence of a detective, forensic knowledge to inform the chase, the help of fellow enthusiasts (often librarians) and a certain amount of luck. Lionel Sawkins has made several such discoveries, including original performing material, some bearing the original performers’ names, for several of Rameau’s stage works. Experience of performing the music one is researching is also useful, making it easier to evaluate the worth of any discovery one makes. Not all old music is worth having the dust blown off it; much of it is best left on the shelf. It’s the most valuable jewels one is looking for, the works that demonstrate a style or school at its best.

Having established the best sources of a particular work, the real work begins. A programme of grands motets, or an opera, may keep an editor busy for up to a year, as a fair copy of a score is first made (either by hand, or more often today by inputting via an electric keyboard into a computer), drawing on the various source materials, and checking at each stage for errors, as well as recomposing any missing parts and decoding any information that may be opaque to modern performers. (Many eighteenth-century printed editions of large-scale works omit inner instrumental and sometimes vocal parts as well.) One of the detailed tasks is to ensure that all the sung-text is correctly ‘underlaid’, i.e. fitted under the notes to which it is to be sung (which will often be different in each voice part).

Once the score is finished and checked, the editor’s next job is to extract from the full score the material individual performers will need. For an opera, or a large choral work, a vocal score will be called for, needing a keyboard reduction of the orchestral accompaniment for use in rehearsal; this must ‘lie under the hands’ of the rehearsal pianist and, if it is to be playable, not try to incorporate all the orchestral material. Then, each orchestral part will need extracting, and arranged on the page so that the page-turns are in practical places, sufficient cues are provided for re-entry after an instrument has been silent, and text added for those instruments accompanying recitative. It is sometimes thought that to extract parts from a computer-generated score, one just presses a few keys, and the job is done, but the page layout for each part may take a considerable time, if the performers are going to have clear and practical parts to ensure that expensive time is not wasted in rehearsal or in the recording studio. A concert with several different works, and a chorus, can require some 350 separate pieces of music for the performers.

When all is done, the satisfaction for the editor is hearing a masterpiece coming to life again, perhaps for the first time in three hundred years. For all the works listed in our hire library, there were no previous satisfactory performing editions or in most cases, none at all, before Lionel Sawkins’s pioneering work. Professional performances have been given and sometimes recordings made of all the editions listed. Musicians all over the world have brought these editions to life over the last 30 years and continue to explore this unique resource.
(for Editors’ rights, see Copyright)
© Copyright 2009 Lionel Sawkins
French Music Editions