What is a critical edition?

Answers to Questions You Never Thought to Ask

Patricia B. Brauner

What is a critical edition?

The critical editions of Rossini and Verdi's works are performing editions supported by extensive scholarly commentary. Their goal is to present the music stripped of the accretions garnered during nearly two hundred years of performance tradition (the first Rossini opera to be performed was La cambiale di matrimonio in 1810), along with information about the works' history and their use in the modern theater. While the basic philosopy is similar for most editions of 19th-century Italian opera, the differences among the various composers' methods and their specific composing milieux require variation in details. This essay uses the Rossini edition as an example.

The works of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Why not, in this age of facsimile and photocopy, perform from the composer's autographs?

Although for most of his thirty-nine operas the autograph scores exist largely intact, problems arise from the nature of a Rossinian opera score that require the intervention of an editor. The present physical condition of the autograph often no longer reflects the work's initial content and order. Sometimes Rossini, pressed for time when composing a new opera, assigned portions to a collaborator; only in some cases did he later substitute his own work. Most of the operas were revived in other cities after their first runs, and revisions customarily were made-either by Rossini or by others in charge, without his involvement-to accommodate the musical requirements of the new theater and new cast.

       Where are the trombones and the drums?    

Rossini composed on music paper in oblong format that rarely had more than sixteen staves. In a number with all musical forces involved, the horns, trumpets, trombones and percussion regularly are indicated in the main score as "in Fine," that is, written as a separate spartitino, or "little score," appended to the main score. Since the spartitini were not used by conductors, but only by the copyists who prepared the parts, they frequently became lost. The missing brass and percussion parts must be recovered from manuscript copies or early printed editions of the score, or the missing parts must be newly composed by the editor.

      Was Rossini a sloppy composer?

Rossini was a careful and remarkably accurate composer, contrary to the image presented in some anecdotes about his habits. However, his scores reflect the circumstances under which he composed: he was often pressed for time and normally wrote for rehearsals at which he would be present, so that the detailed information a modern score holds could be forgone. He needed only to suggest expressive elements such as dynamics or articulation, or such rhythmic precision as whether a pick-up note is written as a sixteenth or a thirty-second. For an edition to be useful for performance, these hints have to be expanded and discrepancies resolved. For example, Rossini frequently mixed f, ff, and sf without any logic; the edition seeks some degree of coherence in a printed score. He might mark the beginning of a passage with four staccati for the first violins; although it is clear musically that they are meant to apply beyond the first measure and to other instruments, how far should they be extended in the printed score? What if they are not present when the theme is repeated later on or-worse yet-they are contradicted by a slur? Did Rossini forget what he wrote at first, did he change his mind about the articulation, did he mean the repetition to be different, or are both versions equally valid interpretations? Particularly in the articulation of the vocal part, Rossini's notation often suggests different ways of treating the same theme. If the score really offers alternatives, the commentary presents the possibilities and discusses the editor's preference. Significant options may appear in the score itself, so even a conductor without the time or inclination to pour over the critical commentary can make informed decisions.

Is a critical edition performable?

Performability is a key element of the philosopy behind the editions. The opera volumes are usually printed only after at least one production is mounted using the provisory score. Editions of particular works are frequently prepared for specific productions: Ermione was edited for the Rossini Opera Festival of 1987, Semiramide for the Metropolitan Opera production of 1990, and Armida for Tulsa Opera's season opening on February 29, 1992--Rossini's 200th birthday. The editors and proofreaders sometimes work against deadlines as pressing as Rossini's, for although computer-edited music has in certain ways eased the task, conductor and singers still anxiously await music that may differ from the version they have learned or that they may not know at all.

How does the score get published?

The publication of the printed scores is an expensive and time-consuming project, and there may be several years between preparation for performance and preparation for printing. Before publication the provisory score is reassessed, the critical commentary refined, and the historical introduction brought up-to-date. Translation of the scholarly apparatus may be necessary. When a volume is finally published, the performing material is made to conform with any changes from the provisory score. Ultimately the editorial committee gives its permission to print - always with the feeling that it should be gone over just once more!

What value does a critical edition have for a conductor?

Most obviously, many of Rossini's operas were essentially unknown until the Rossini revival began in the mid-twentieth century. Until now they have been available only in piano-vocal scores, if at all. Yet even those that enjoyed a relatively continuous performance history existed in versions that often are far from any known to the composer himself. A pastiche of Il Turco in Italia was published and widely distributed after its performance at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1820. Consisting of numbers from La Cenerentola, L'Italiana in Algeri, and Ciro in Babilonia, as well as an aria not by Rossini at all, it confused critics for decades. Il barbiere di Siviglia was known in corrupt versions from the end of the nineteenth century. Guillaume Tell is the most striking case: the opera was much revised both during rehearsals and during the first performances. However, the orchestral score published in 1829 was engraved before the opera went into rehearsal, and thus it preserved Rossini's last opera in a version never performed under the composer's auspices.

Does a critical edition restrict a performer's choices?

The critical edition restores, insofar as possible, Rossini's original version of a work and provides supplementary material to permit the performance of revisions made or approved by the composer. What the edition does not do is to determine a "definitive" version of an opera. Neither which pieces are performed nor how they are performed is prescribed. For instance, the edition indicates cuts that have historical authority and stylistic validity: whether these or other cuts are taken or not is a matter to be decided in the theater. When Rossini's score presents equally valid alternatives in dynamics or articulation, the options are offered by the edition. In the crucial matter of vocal variation, the edition provides singers with historical models, understanding that early nineteenth-century variation technique expected each singer to create or make use of variations adapted to her own voice.

Rossini was once the most popular composer in the world, and his music accumulated encrustations of performing traditions before it was essentially abandoned for new styles. Today Rossini is being rediscovered, and the popularity of his music is due in part to the work of the editors who have tried to reveal the composer's own vision, in part to the musicians who have learned to perform the way Rossini expected. The editorial judgements, the scholarly apparatus, the tedious proofreading is not done in order to put another heavy book on a shelf. The stress and anxiety of preparing a critical edition is rewarded when Rossini's operas come alive in the theater.

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