Music Sources and Edition – Part 1

A common notion from many performers confronted that the printed music score in front of them was what a composer originally wrote and intended. Regrettably, this is not the case even with the recent works and it is rarely true of music written some 200 years ago. Even major works are subjected to extensive study by scholars. How an edition was prepared, and the problems faced by an editor can result in a performer gaining a much great understanding which leads to a more effective performance.

There are three types of modern editions: ‘performing’ editions, ‘scholarly’ editions and ‘scholarly performing’ editions. Pure performing edition contains helpful hints on how the editor thinks the music should be interpreted. The editor who may be a well-known performer will indicate such matters as fingers, breathing, phrasing, pedalling and dynamics levels and often disregard what the composer actually wrote. The version thus reflected what is preferred by the performer rather than the composers.

Meanwhile, the scholarly editions, much care is taken to present them as faithfully as possible with the exactly details for what the composer wrote. These editions present a generally reliable musical text, but without direction on how the music was intended to sound.  Such editions are often described as ‘Urtext’ (original text) to distinguish them from performing editions; however, the word ‘Urtext’ has in some cases been edited so the source of the authenticity has been questioned. 

Some editions combined the two formerly mentioned type into the best feature into ‘scholarly performing’ edition. The editor explained in the preface and on the actual music itself what sounds and intention the music is intended to convey. Contrary to the common notion, notation has changed considerably since the eighteenth century. Hence, a good edition should contain both reliable musical texts as intended by the composer and a reliable guide on interpretation.


All editions of Classical music are based on multiple sources that provide the editor with the basic material. An edition comes from the source where a work is transmitted from the composer’s mind to our modern edition. For example, Beethoven is known to have composed extensively at the piano on occasion, before writing down a single note. This leaves no single note on the manuscript and thus provide no source of edition for modern editor. Composer may have a draft sketch of a manuscript. Mozart and Haydn both made a lot of rough sketches and discarded them. Since sketches represent preliminary work rather than their final work, they are rarely of any use to an edition attempting to establish text. Usually, these sketches were used by editor to authenticate a missing detail like a missing sharp to confirm the suspicion.

From Autograph to Fair Copy

Composers usually write down the whole work for the first time after completing the initial sketches. This is known as ‘autograph score’, whether or not composer actually signed his name on it. Occasionally, ‘holograph’ is also used which essentially denotes the same thing. The autograph score is of fundamental importance since all other sources are based on it directly or indirectly. Nonetheless, the autograph score may not have survived. Generally, the earlier the music, the more likely that the autograph will disappear.

There is no known autograph for Haydn’s autograph and the same applies to Beethoven’s early works, although his later works are well represented. Schubert, his autograph is normally the only source since many of his work remained unpublished and unknown until long after his death.

Occasionally, composers made changes while writing out the autograph although this was less common for Mozart and Haydn than it was for Beethoven, whose manuscript occasionally became so messy that a whole movement or work was written out a second time. His finale for Piano Sonata Op.110 has two autograph scores, which can be referred to as ‘composing scores’ and ‘fair copy’. On other occasion, composer decided to revise a work sometime after it had been completed and perhaps published, in which case there may have been a composing score and a fair copy for each version.

When there were multiple versions of work survives, it is customary to regard the final version as the official one, representing the composer’s latest intention and thus supersedes the former ones.

Sometimes, after completing the autograph, the composer arranged for a professional copyist to make a fair copy, usually either a set of parts for performance, or a score to be sent to a publisher for printing. The best copyist achieves a very high standard of accuracy with the exception where errors may occasionally occurred due to the insufficient clarity of the autograph. Many of Beethoven’s works were copied this way, and Beethoven would correct the copy and at the same time added articulation marks like slurs, accidentals etc. that may have been omitted in the original autograph. Minor revision may also be made at that stage. As a result, these copies often rendered a better version than his autograph, but they might include errors missed during review.

Before the 18th Century, most music was circulated through manuscript copies rather than printed editions, but technological advancement made music printing gradually easier and cheaper, so the printed editions became increasingly common.

Thus, modern editors from the Classical period often have to contend with a mixture of printed and manuscript sources.  Music printing was done through engraved metal plates, but lithography was introduced during the Classical Period.

Bach wrote over 200 Cantatas but the only one printed was The Well-Tempered Clavier long after his death. Contrarily, Beethoven’s Sonatas were published within two years of being composed as was Mozart and Haydn.

Clementi meanwhile founded a publishing company and printed his own compositions at the time. Schubert was relatively young and unknown at the time of his death. He often had difficulties persuading publishers to have his works printed as so many remained in manuscript.

If a composer wanted his work to be printed, he sent the autograph score to the publisher and a set of plates was engraved from this. A ‘proof’ was produced and either checked by his publisher or sent to the composer for checking. The plates were amended before further copies were produced. If the checking was done by the composer, it is possible that further improvements even at this late stage.

Once the proof copy and the plates had been amended, a run of usually 50 – 100 copies were produced. The plates were then stored, and further copies were produced at later dates if required. Plates were occasionally amended between runs as mistakes came to light until the individual plates eventually wore out and were replaced with new ones, which at that point introduced fresh errors. Thus, an editor cannot ensure that all copies of the printed edition are identical. Ideally, every known copy of the original edition should be checked.

Rival Publishers

Copyright laws within individual countries were still fairly rudimentary as there were no international copyright laws. Occasionally, composers supervised two editions from different publishers from a different country. Both Beethoven and Haydn managed to sell some of their works to both English and Austrian publishers, thereby gaining two fees.

There may be other sources that had corrections sent by the composers to the publisher but the process of publishing is captured as follows:

  1. Sketches and drafts
  2. Composing score
  3. Composer’s fair copy
  4. Corrected copy, prepared by copyist with the composer’s annotations
  5. Editions (possibly more than one) supervised by composer
  6. Manuscript copies closely associated with composer
  7. Other manuscript copies from composer’s lifetime
  8. Other printed editions from composer’s lifetime
  9. Posthumous Manuscripts or printed editions.

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