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MUS 300: Music History: Scholarly scores

Library research guide for Music 300 taught by Caitlin Carlos, Fall 2020

This page will help you...

Understand how musicologists and editors work together to create reliable scholarly scores.

Question for reflection

What makes a classical music score "good" or "not good"?

Some factors you might consider include:

  • Physical attributes (size, paper texture and color, binding)
  • Musical layout (staff size and spacing, page turns, parts)
  • Musical context (extra-musical information about the composer, time period, genre; performance directions)
  • Your situation (how much experience do you have with the instrument, composer and genre? Are you writing a paper or performing the piece on a recital?)

Consider how your answers to what you look for in a score are related to your situation and the expectations of the audience you're engaging with.

Accuracy in musical scores

Western classical music has relied on written scores for centuries, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that technological advances allowed music publishers to sell mechanically printed scores at lower cost to a wider audience of professional and, increasingly, amateur musicians. 

Music publishers felt increasing competition in the market for published scores, and sought to distinguish themselves on the authoritativeness and accuracy of their scores. Faithfulness to the composer's original intentions quickly became a selling point for the largest publishers.

This video tells the story of how publisher C.F. Peters exploited innovations in printing to create a mass market for published music in the mid-nineteenth century.

Music research and scores

Publishers like C.F. Peters, Barenreiter, and Henle led the European market for printed music in the nineteenth century, and emerged as dominant, multinational entities in the twentieth century. These publishers create new scholarly editions of scores in partnership with trained musicologists and editors.

Creating a new edition of a score is a specialized form of music research. It requires expertise in several areas, including

  • the comparison of existing manuscripts and published editions of a musical work
  • the circumstances surrounding the creation, publication and distribution of the work
  • knowledge of contemporaneous performance practices

Conductor Simon Rattle and Bahrenreiter editor Jonathan Del Mar tell the story of how they discovered a discrepancy between the autograph and published editions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The work of the music editor

The authoritativeness of a score is often defined as the score being true to the composer's original intentions, based on evidence such as the composer's own words, manuscript scores, or early published editions approved by the composer. This view is still held by many music editors. Here, Dr. Brita Schilling-Wang, Editor of Piano Music at music publisher Barenreiter, explains how Urtext editions are produced.

Recently, some scholars have become skeptical that scores can embody this sort of objective authority. According to this view, music editing is not about establishing "the last word" on the composer's intentions, but rather about making the points of disagreement in a musical text visible to performers, who can then make more informed decisions about interpretation.

Activity: Is it a scholarly score?

You can benefit from the scholarship involved in Complete Composer Critical Editions by consulting a complete edition in Armacost Library (if we have it) or accessing a performing edition derived from the complete works edition.

How can you tell whether a performance score that you come across is based on rigorous scholarship?

Attributes of the score itself, such as the presence of an introductory essay, footnotes, or source citations at the end of the score, might help you understand the nature of your score.

Many scores are reprints of other publications, particularly for works not under copyright. Check for a statement at the front of a printed score indicating it was reprinted from another source.

If the origin of your score is still unclear, try researching the publisher.

Here are some examples to practice on.

What can you determine about these scores based on information in the catalog record (for physical scores) or information in the website and on the score itself (for online scores)?