A musical work by major composer may often be available in multiple editions by different publishers. Differences in the musical text – the notes and interpretation markings printed on the page – may be considerable depending on the intended purpose of the edition and when it was published. An historical edition of a Bach Prelude, for example, may be quite different from a performance edition that contains interpretation markings added by someone other than the composer.
The type of historical edition that is most valuable for the study of original versions of older music is the ‘scholarly’ or ‘critical’ edition. To prepare a scholarly version of a work, an editor (sometimes an editorial team) looks carefully at all known primary sources, including the composer’s original manuscript, copies prepared for the earliest publications and performances, and original editions. The purpose is to present the most authoritative authentic version of the work, with editorial material clearly distinguished from the original. These scholarly editions are sometimes called “Urtext” (German for correct text) editions, although in many cases it is impossible to determine any one true version of the work.
By contrast, the ‘practical’ or ‘performance’ edition is frequently produced from a single, often unidentified source and may incorporate additions or changes designed to help the performer. Its purpose is not to present a pure text based on original sources but rather to provide a guide to approaches to interpretation.
HistoricalEditions of Composer’s Works
One type of historical edition is the collected works of a single composer, usually published in multiple volumes depending on how prolific the composer was. In many cases, these collected works editions contain the only copy of a specific work owned by the library. However, the Library’s online catalog does not index the individual works found in these volumes, so it is difficult to locate individual titles unless you know where to look. For example, let’s say that you’ve been asked to find the music for the choral anthem, “This is the day” by Handel for an upcoming wedding. If you try searching for this by title in the library’s catalog you will come up empty handed. However, the library does own the score for this work, hidden away in one of the many volumes of Handel’s collected works.
To find works published in collected editions, you can use a few different reference sources. The ones we recommend include two databases (Index to Printed Music and Oxford Music Online) and thematic catalogs for individual composers. See the next tab for more information on how to use these sources.