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Music Editing

by Kurt Stone

Is there a music editor who has not been asked: "What exactly does a music editor do, and why?" Even professional musicians rarely know the answer. And yet, published music would be in a sorry state without editorial processing.

So what does an editor do? Perhaps a comparison with the less mysterious literary editor might throw some light.

Both are equal in their constant search for new material, i.e., both must read through countless new works, and both have the responsibility of selecting some and rejecting most of them. However, the music editor, in addition to reading new manuscripts, must also attend an endless stream of performances of new compositions and operatic works, while his literary colleague sees at most an occasional new, as yet unpublished play or attends a poetry reading.

Both become similar again in their endeavor to build a distinct catalogue, not just a haphazard collection of anything they, or management, happen to like, or believe might make money. Structuring a catalogue is not easy, but in the music field it is much more complex than in book publishing. Once a book has been accepted it is edited, printed, sold, and (one hopes) read, while music must be performed. And while books can be read by any literate person, music addresses itself to a highly dissimilar and specialized audience. Not only is music composed for different instruments or the voice; it is for solo instruments or for combinations from duos to full orchestras and bands, just as vocal music is for solo voice or for combinations with other voices and/or instruments, all the way to oratorios and operas. In recent years, moreover, electronics have also become legitimate components of the musical scene.

Of course, book publishers, too, have specialized categories and sub-categories — trade books, textbooks, reference books, art books, cookbooks, mysteries, and so forth — but the differences have chiefly to do with markets and merchandising, not with the buyers' ability to read. Nearly everybody can read, but nobody can play all instruments and sing to boot, let alone do it in combination with other performers. In short, problems of performance do not enter into book publishing, except for theater material.

And this is not all. Most music, i.e., all but solo music and music for voice and piano or chorus, must be made available in two forms: score and parts. And in operas and oratorios a third "incarnation" is needed: a vocal score, and for an opera also a libretto.

A literary editor won't ever encounter anything as troublesome and expensive.

Finally one more problem that needs mentioning: while all books and articles are at least potentially candidates for translation into one or more foreign languages, instrumental music can be performed from the same notation practically anywhere. Vocal music, on the other hand, is not so lucky: texts, if translated, enlarge the market, but the translations must be singable to be useful-a much more ornery problem than a "mere" prose translation.

And now for the actual editing.

It is not uncommon that a literary editor will suggest quite fundamental changes to an author, changes that may involve re-arranging the entire structure of a book or article. Of course, many manuscripts are of sufficient quality not to require such drastic intrusion, but the editor may still want to rewrite a good many passages to bring certain aspects into clearer focus. He may shift, add, elaborate, or delete certain details, improve sentence constructions and punctuation, change an awkward term to the mot juste, and so on. He might even help an author with the planning of an as yet unfinished or totally unwritten book.

Music editors tamper only rarely, if ever, with such profound aspects of a new work, nor do they propose changes of details comparable in scope to those in the literary field. The reason is that the telling of a story, unlike the progress of a musical composition, is governed by a kind of common logic, a logic which operates independently of subject matter and its literary (stylistic) treatment. A good literary editor has at his command an arsenal of all-purpose rules with which he can hone awkward expressions into smooth phrases and change muddled ramblings into coherent expositions.

Music, alas, lacks such objective rules, even for compositions in traditional style (although it certainly is easier to fix a clumsy detail in a piece written in the style of Beethoven than, say, of Luciano Berio). In music there are no Websters in which to look up things, nor are there comparable grammars, style manuals, or thesauruses. The music editor accepts the work of a composer to a much higher degree than a literary editor accepts the work of an author. This may be a strange difference in attitude, but there it is. Can anyone imagine a music editor doing to the scores of Stravinsky what Max Perkins did to the writings of Thomas Wolfe?

And yet, it probably was the result of editorial suggestions that Stravinsky, in his 1943 revision of the Danse sacrale of his Sacre, doubled the note-values and changed the system of beaming, thus making it clearer and much easier to read and perform than the original 1921 notation.

This little Stravinsky story takes us to the next stage in the editorial preparation of a new manuscript, and it is here that the music editor faces a task unknown to his literary colleagues. While the book editor, once the substantive editorial changes have been approved, gives the typescript to the production editors to check for correct spelling and typographical consistency (capitalization, italics, etc.), the music editor now has to consider the graphic, notational aspects of a composition. Unlike a standard alphabet and standard spelling, music notation still is an unsettled means of communication. There usually are several different ways in which the same music can be notated, and it is the editor's task to decide which notational presentation is the most musically appropriate and at the same time the easiest to read, and to see to it that the work in question shows notational consistency throughout.

In general, an experienced composer will not need much re-notating, but this is not always so, especially since the 1950's when notational experimentation and innovation almost overshadowed the music proper. Besides, there are areas where composers and editors may have quite different, though equally valid notational approaches. In such situations the editor will (should) discuss the pros and cons with the composer. To give but two frequently encountered examples: (1) The beaming in rhythmically irregular music. Are the beams to show the irregularity of the rhythmic groupings, or are they to show the (regular) beats in a measure, i.e., are the beams to be "musical" or "practical?" (2) In a piano piece with many up and down passages, should the music for the two hands move from staff to staff to avoid too many clef changes, or should each hand stay in its own staff?

Nothing like this ever occurs in the book field.

Once all these problems have been solved, a music editor begins to check the score for all sorts of details. Do the instruments and voices stay within their ranges? Is enough time allotted for instrument changes, such as oboe to English horn? Is the text in a vocal piece correctly reproduced, the capitalization the way the poet had it (composers almost never bother!), the syllables divided properly? Are the transpositions for transposing instruments correct (unless the score is in C, and then the parts have to be in the correct transpositions)? Is the percussion setup practical? And so on and so forth.

In the past, when music was engraved, the engravers could generally be relied upon to find and correct minor errors — wrong note-values, missing slurs, improper placement of dynamics and expression marks — but times have changed, engravers are virtually extinct, and many of the new breed of musical typists never went as thoroughly into the details of musical notation as their forbearers had to do during their long years of apprenticeship. The editor must fill this gap.

Next there is the matter of keyboard reductions in choral music: should one indicate all vocal lines by way of stemming, something that becomes complicated if there are more than four contrapuntal voices, or should one strive for easiest readability by way of reducing the stems to a minimum? In orchestral reductions (vocal scores of operas, for example), what should be included, what omitted?

Then there is the matter of extracting parts. The editor, unless he can rely on his copyist or autographer, must himself indicate entrance cues that the respective player can really hear as he sits surrounded by other players.

Another chore: page turns. Only conductors and vocalists can turn pages regardless of whether the music has a rest or not. All others must have rests to free a hand with which to turn the page. The editor, thus, has to determine the layouts of all parts unless, again, he knows he can rely on his copyists, etc. (This problem naturally extends to all instrumental music, not just to orchestra parts.)

The page-turn problem is made even more cumbersome by a silly tradition: all printed music ends with a full page, just like a magazine or newspaper. A book, by contrast, may end anywhere on a page, which makes a lot more sense.

None of the above covers the work of a very different type of music editor: the one who specializes in the reissuance of old music (chiefly music of the Renaissance and Baroque), as well as music of non-Western civilizations. The purely technical aspects mentioned above apply equally, of course: music is edited to make the notation as musically appropriate and as easy to perform as possible. But the purely musico-editorial approach toward old or non-Western music, from heavily edited, personalized reincarnations to stern Urtext editions, and the innumerable stations in-between, would amount to another article.

Kurt Stone is a leading music editor and the author of Music Notation in the Twentieth Century-a Practical Guidebook (W.W. Norton).

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