Dr. Ronald Anderson

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Choosing a Good Edition

by Dr. Ronald Anderson
SFA Director of the SFA School of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


With the publishing market cluttered with numerous editions of early music, the unwary conductor can be duped into making performance decisions based on the "whims" of an editor.  If you compare two or three differing editions of the same piece of music (a motet by Palestrina, for example) you may well find substantial variations in tempos, dynamics, and even key/mode centers.

How do you know, then, whose edition to use?

Criteria for Choosing a Good Edition

First, all of the sources used in preparing the edition should be identified, whether printed sources or manuscripts.

Next, all original material should be noted, including the original composer, original title (in the original language), the opus number (if any); and the original instrumentation.  If a figured bass exists in the original it should be included with the figured bass numbers as well as any original realizations.  The original text should be provided in addition to any translations or adaptations, and the author, translator, source and liturgical use of the text (if appropriate) should be identified wherever possible.

Then, (and most important) the editor should clearly distinguish in the score exactly what exists in the original source(s) from what he/she may have added or changed.  There are several methods of doing this including the use of performance notes, incipits of the original notation, indicating changes in parentheses, placing a slash through changes, etc.

Because music notation has changed over the centuries, where necessary, key signatures (mode indications), time signatures (mensuration signs), rhythmic units, clefs, and other features of older notation should be modernized.  When done, however, an incipit showing the original notation should be included and a description of the changes should be included in a performance note.

Conductors should avoid editions that include anachronistic notation, especially if not identified clearly as added by the editor.  Renaissance works, for example, do not as a rule have any dynamic markings in the original scores.  Thus, when found in modern scores, invariably they are added by the editor.  Renaissance works did not have bar lines in the original scores (in fact, almost all works were printed in separate part books that include the music to only one part!).  When bar lines are included, they are a modernization and "may" lead to performance implications not found in the original.  Furthermore, crescendo and decrescendo markings did not exist during the Renaissance or Baroque periods of music history.  When found in a modern edition, again, the conductor should know they have been added by the editor whether indicated as such or not!

Finally, you should know that for many famous pieces of early music, several editions exist.  Since publishers have very differing academic standards for their publications, don't just accept the editions available at the local music store.  [To see if other editions are available, consult Sacred Choral Music in Print and Secular Choral Music in Print, part of the Music in Print series published by Musicdata.]  You may have to go to a good research library to find these books, but you will find it well worth the effort to consult them. 

When you find publishers that follow the guidelines above, seek out their publications for editions of other early works.  Then, as your understanding of performance practices of early music increases, you can make informed and reasoned decisions about whether the editorial markings that have been added to the original score should be followed religiously or altered to conform to your own understanding of how early music is to be performed.  The study of performance practices is an ongoing process, and one that can be very exciting and rewarding for any conductor.


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