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MUSIC: Scholarly scores

An introduction to music research for University of Redlands students

This page will help you...

  • Articulate what makes a score "authoritative"
  • Evaluate the scholarship used to produce a score

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.

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.

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.

Composer Complete Critical Editions

Composers especially renowned in Western art music (such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, or Bartok) are the subject of Composer Complete Critical Editions (CCCEs), also known as "collected works" editions (or Werke in German). These are multi-volume sets of hard-bound scores sold to libraries and archives. Armacost Library has non-circulating copies of several collected works editions on the third floor, shelved in the M3s. Here's an example of one of them: Beethoven's Werke, published by Henle based on research in the Beethoven-Archiv.

Volume from Beethoven's Werke

Leading music publishers produce CCCEs through long-term research projects involving musicologists and music editors. The goal is to identify every piece written by a composer and establish an authoritative text. The task can take decades and requires funding from research grants and private donations. Publishing companies seek to recover their investment in the project by selling performing editions of individual works to musicians. Libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions interested in buying the full set of scores as they are released one volume at a time are a secondary market.

Innovations in score research

Variants of Chopin's f minor Ballade, Op. 52, measure 2

Scholars and editors are using the Internet and digital humanities techniques to experiment with new ways of comparing and displaying musical sources. The Chopin Variorum Edition is an excellent example:

The Chopin Variorum edition allows you to browse for a particular work by Chopin, view its score and click on a measure to see the different versions of that passage of music appearing in Chopin's manuscripts and early published editions.

The project took over 15 years and was financially supported by a Mellon Grant. The project team developed new tools for selecting and comparing music in a web browser and amassed over 60,000 images of music, plus metadata and commentary.

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)?

Key points

  • Scholarly scores can help you interpret and perform major classical works.
  • Scholarly scores are created through a research process that involves comparing existing variations of the musical score.
  • You can identify scholarly scores by examining your score and researching its publisher.