Ronald Broude's new article on musical works, texts, editions

Ronald Broude’s article “Musical Works, Musical Texts, and Musical Editions“ in Scholarly Editing (vol. 33, 2012) came to me as a surprise, almost a breath of fresh air. It entertains some key reflections on the role of music editions and their digital future. The entire issue of Scholarly Editing is, in fact, quite good and freely available on the Web under a Creative Commons A-NC-SA 3.0 License.

Broude makes an important distinction between “historicizing” editions and “enabling” editions. The first are musicological and critical; the latter “mediate between a piece of music and a specific community of performers” such as “amateurs”, “proficient recreational musicians” and “professionals” (pp. 4-5). Enabling editions are the most common because the largest share of the market is not the professional musicians and the main selling point are exactly the “performing suggestions provided by [the] editors” (p. 5). In appendix, Broude provides a few “exhibits” of these different approaches to support his claims.

The tension between historicizing and enabling editions is ideological. Broude thinks that this tension can be reduced to how a creative work is conceptualized: is it a “product” or “process”? Seeing it as a product is typical of the work-concept that dominated musicology from the nineteenth century to modernism and beyond (for which see Lydia Goehr’s seminal book). Within this framework, even if the composer revises the work in response to specific circumstances, it is still the composer only that has the authority and right to create different versions. “[A]lterations effected by performers, for example―can claim neither authority nor the legitimacy that authority is understood to confer” (p. 7) (recent research in performance practice and advocacy is perhaps the currently strongest challenger of this idea). Editions produced within this framework typically cannot escape pursuing the presentation of a text that reflects the composers’ intentions.

By seeing the work as a process, the role of the composer becomes less central. The reception of the work becomes important too, and as performance practice and audiences’ taste evolve, so does the work. Taken to an extreme, “any number of texts is possible, since each state [of the work] can be reflected in a text”. Broude still warns that enabling editions do not necessary fall under this latter framework, mainly because their editors to do not choose to follow a “philosophical rationale for their activity” (p. 8).

"It makes a difference when musicians play
from well-used material"

He’s not the first, but Broude reminds us that “[m]usical works are performing works, and each time a musical work is performed, it must be adapted to the circumstances of a specific performance” (p. 10). He seeks a middle ground, though, by claiming that a lot of these adaptations more often than not are notated as text or, in his words, “performed onto paper” (p. 11). These texts have been put together in the past, and still are today. They often are the only witnesses to performance practice before the invention of the phonograph, but today written notation is not the only form of “text” and Broude seems to voluntarily underplay the role of recorded music in the shaping of audiences’ expectations and performance practice. He chooses instead to present the example of Bernard Haitink wanting to play from “well-used material” (p. 12).

Broude continues by clearly stating that the historicizing edition can “produce a misleading view of musical practice and musical text” by emphasizing the role of the composer’s text. These editions may even not reflect the work’s identity at all as they “ignore the interaction of text and performance”. Textual theory, then, ought to take performance into account or it “cannot accurately describe the dynamics of musical texts” (p. 13).

Broude eventually starts to envisage a type of edition that is able to account for more than one point of view and span the two traditions. He’s referring to digital editions, which will be able to “make the works they represent available in a variety of ways”. It is a bit disheartening to read: “[s]uch editions are not here yet―I write in 2011―but sooner or later they will be” (p. 14). Such words are remarkably similar to James Grier’s short chapter on electronic editions from his 1996 book The Critical Editing of Music: “programs with [such] capabilities are under development for literature and I am sure that the situation in music will soon be rectified” (p. 177). It really is true that digital scores have not improved much in the past decade and more, mainly because the score is conceived and perceived as destined to be printed (perhaps I’ll elaborate more on this in another post and make a distinction between digital distribution and digital consumption).

Broude imagines digital editions that benefit the text scholar by being capable of generating collations and looking for (dis)agreement amongst sources. He also envisages digital editions that performers can use to second guess editorial decisions” by being able to survey “several texts of a work they are preparing to perform”. Eventually, he concludes, “digital editions will lead to a new idea of musical works”, one that is multiform and fluid (p. 14).

Although I can only be excited by reading such support for digital editions by an established scholar and editor, I can also see Broude portraying the digital editions as some sort of holy grail, not unlikely what the literary community was doing in the mid-to-late 90s.

The issues behind automatic collation, for example, are numerous and they are both technical and monetary; data entry is expensive in time and money. When it comes to second guessing editorial decisions, or choosing performing marks from one historical document or the other, it is hard to tell whether performers would really make use of such a kind of feature. Broude claims that performers already do this sort of work when preparing a piece (p. 15), but is that true across the spectrum of repertoires and skill sets?

At least tentative answers to these and other important questions must be produced before being able to make claims on changing the idea of musical works. A few more: how should a digital edition be modelled computationally? What changes in method(ology) would such model impose on editors? Should digital editions be distributed and sold like a printed score? Should they grow and improve when new sources are found or should the process start over with new editors? Etc. Assuming that at some point there will be “tools” is not enough.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but agreeing with Broude’s claim that “the impulse to apply [digital editing (and publishing) technology] will be irresistible“. The pervasiveness of technology (particularly mobile) makes these times much more fertile for digital editions of music than 1996. The road is still long and bumpy, though.


wraabe (2012-05-03 13:14:43): Thanks, Raffaele, for pointing me to Broude’s essay and Goehr’s book, the latter of which is really intriguing for a textual editor. It seems not unaccidental that the cultural invention of classical pieces as detailed performance scores coincides with the invention of Romantic literary authorship.