Let me be quite candid… editing — that is anything to do with publishing, typesetting, proofreading and other allied professions — is very painstaking and tedious — especially so in the world of music.

Since about 2000, with the emergence of music notation software such as Finale and Sibelius, virtuosos, teachers and other musicians have been able to turn their hand almost painlessly to this intricate and difficult medium. Now that interpretive musicians can edit and typeset with relative ease, is it time to present our musical heritage in a way fitting for this brave new world? Is it time for music editing to move on?

I make no apology for the example I am about to give; the contrast is blatantly dramatic, but as I edit more and more “impressionists”, I find too many examples where the mechanics for setting out music scores were clearly not fully up to the task.

And are composers really the most suitable editors to supervise the presentation of their œuvre? Are they sufficiently objective? Once a work has been created and sent off to publishers for proofreading, a composer will always have something new and more exciting to occupy his time — a new idea or a new lover perhaps; the idea of having to meticulously go over all those old dots, instructions, lines and signs must be insufferable for an active composer; is it any wonder that we find so many typos!

It is for this reason I have spent much time revisiting a number of works written about 100 years ago, and there I encounter a moral dilemma in that I have to make radical revisions which might have upset a composer no longer able to influence my decisions. At the time of their composition, it was unthinkable that musicians would one day be able to edit and publish their own versions.

No-one would question an interpretative artist for making moderate “adaptations” to a piece of music for performance; from time to time we all add octaves to the bass, eliminate awkward notes, “wickedly” play a note with the “wrong” hand… and we all “bend” metre and expression marks to suit our own “interpretations” after all. But what about setting down these modifications in print?

My editions are not intellectual, and do not follow urtext or other editions precisely, but are rather fresh interpretations based on personal analysis and experience, getting into the skin of a composer through his works and relying on intuition rather than adhesion to tradition, often redrafting the written text to make it clearer or easier to perform.

Instrumental music, especially for the piano, has become ever more complex and complicated; I give as an example here, a most wonderful piece — El Albaicín by the Spanish impressionist Isaac Albeniz — which paints a remarkable picture of gypsy life in a medieval district of Granada. Curiously the composer wrote this challenging piece entirely in 3/8 time with a key signature of 5 flats, in spite of many key and metre changes. Was this through negligence or by design? 

Take a look at a few illustrative bars from the original edition:

Original edition

and now my transformation, with appropriate changes of clef, key and time-signatures:

My edition

In certain pieces I believe it is time to promote the sostenuto pedal, patented by Steinway way back in 1874. At the end of the nineteenth century it was only available on their grands and most expensive uprights, and I suspect that publishers and composers were loth to exclude sections of the music-buying public, this rare device possibly dissuading them from buying the score. However, in conjunction with the sustaining pedal it can be used with stunning orchestral effect — so much of the music of Ravel, Debussy and Albeniz, demanding a bass “pedal point”. One might say that it took over 100 years to become commonplace.

I hope this article will engender some interest and argument as I have been involved in performing and editing works by Debussy, Albeniz and Ravel over a number of years and would welcome comments and feedback.

Ray Alston

February 2018