One of the most baffling aspects of music-making for a student just beginning to learn the repertoire of his instrument is navigating the dozens of different editions available of the same standard works. If you want to learn (say) one of the Beethoven piano sonatas, you can choose between editions of many different colours, shapes and sizes, dating from any time between the mid-19th century and last week, and ranging in price from pocket change to hundreds of dollars.
(As an aside, one of my favourite things about playing contemporary music is not having to deal with any of this. The works are in copyright and are therefore almost always available in only a single edition, and if for some reason there's more than one version floating around, a quick call to the composer can resolve the problem.)
Beginner students usually opt for the cheapest and most readily available editions, a purchase they often later regret. More advanced players in academic settings generally look for a "scholarly" edition, which usually means one with minimal editorial additions and a detailed critical apparatus explaining the reasons for the editor's decisions. Few of these performers, of course, actually bother to read the editor's introduction or critical commentary, and so purchases like these serve mostly as status symbols. Having a Bärenreiter or Henle edition on the music stand means that you're a performer with intelligence and critical acumen, and whatever musical text lies inside the handsomely-printed eighty-dollar volumes can be trusted implicitly to represent the intentions of the composer.
That all of this has more to do with skillful marketing than musicological substance is evident enough, and nothing exemplifies the problem better than the prevalence of the term "Urtext" to describe these prestigious editions. The idea is attractive enough: beneath the accumulated errors of past editions lies the underlying, primordial text of the composition (Ur-text) that the composer actually wrote. As an art restorer removes layers of grime and grease from an ancient painting, so the Urtext edition removes the impertinent additions of previous editors. And where the editors of those older editions put their own fingerprints on the musical page - Artur Schnabel, Marcel Dupré, Fritz Kreisler - the editors of Urtext editions leave no trace of their own individual tastes or opinions. Faceless, insubstantial shadows, these Urtext editors, hardly there at all.
But all of this presents some problems. If there's such a thing as Urtext, then why are there competing Urtext editions with different readings? In some cases, as in the G. Henle Verlag editions of the Schumann piano music, the same publisher will release more than one version of the same composition, both labelled as Urtext. If there's more than one source for the same piece of music - the original manuscript and a published edition, say - which is the Urtext? What if you're editing Beethoven, who had the world's messiest handwriting, and it's by no means clear-cut what, exactly, the page actually says?
It should be obvious, then, that the production of any musical edition is the result of careful scholarship and editorial oversight. The editor's decisions are the result of many, many complex judgment calls, and should reflect high-quality scholarship and careful comparison of the extant sources. By pretending the editor's role doesn't exist, Urtext editors misrepresent the actual nature of their activity and encourage gullible musicians to accept their decisions without question.
A typical example of this sort of thinking is found in the Broude Trust edition of Buxtehude's organ music. There are no autograph scores for any Buxtehude work, so the only available exemplars of Buxtehude organ pieces are manuscript copies made years after his death (mostly by members of the Bach circle). As one might expect from copies several steps removed from the composer's autograph, all of these sources are problematic, and none are free from errors. Writing in the preface to the new Broude edition, Christoph Wolff rips into previous editors for their decision to present a musical text that uses elements from all of the available sources. The best an editor can do, says Wolff, is to provide "a conservative rendering of an extant source." And so that's what the Broude edition gives you - for each work, the editors have picked what they consider to be the least problematic source, and used it as the basis for their text, consulting other manuscripts only when their chosen source has some blatantly obvious error.
Now, an intelligent user of the Broude edition has the option of working around the editor's decisions. Reading from rejected manuscripts are carefully catalogued in the critical apparatus, so that a performer who so chooses can compile his own composite version. But the average person who consults an edition such as this won't think the score is a "conservative reading" of the editor's favourite "extant source" - he'll think that it represents the Buxtehude Urtext. The antiseptic surface of the edition obscures the decisions that went into it.
In the 19th century, the editor was so highly thought of that he was free to add expression markings, tempo indications, and sometimes alter the notes themselves according to their interpretation of the essence of the score. In the 21st century, the editor is so lowly thought of that he is not to be trusted even to compare readings from different manuscripts. A middle ground seems necessary, and I think the expansion of digital technology will provide it.
Consider: if you want to look at a physical copy of a Buxtehude source or a Beethoven first edition, it's a pain. It's in some library, probably in Europe, and you'll need to take a week and fly there, and as you can't just stick the manuscript on the photocopier, if you want to refer to it after your visit you'll need to bring some staff paper and a pencil. Today, however, all of the most important manuscripts are available in facsimile editions, and many of those have now been digitized and are available for free through various online sources. Why would you want to pay $200 for some editor's "conservative reading of an extant source" when you have instantaneous access to the extant sources from your living room, and can read them in as conservative or liberal a way as you like?
This is not mere flippancy. Serious early music performers today are now expected to be conversant with the manuscript sources of their repertoire, and to be able to read the notation. If the published edition is nothing more than a mechanical transcription of a single manuscript that you could do yourself, why would you pay the Broude Trust's two-hundred-dollar price tag? And if the goal of an "Urtext" edition is to remove all unnecessary barriers between you and the original sources, why do we still need these editions when the original sources have lapsed into the public domain and are available online?
Music publishers are going to have to answer these questions if they expect their business to have a long-term future. If I just want the notes to a Beethoven string quartet in an easy-to-read edition, there are free public-domain editions on IMSLP. If I want to take a more scholarly approach, I can make emendations to that public-domain edition from the original sources. In neither case does a music publisher have anything to offer that I can't already get for free. The one thing they can offer, however, is the talent, expertise and experience of intelligent editors, people who know a lot more about the music than I do. Rather than telling them to keep their talent, expertise and experience to themselves, publishers can remain relevant by encouraging them to take chances, to give the performer as much to work with as possible, and to always explain themselves fully. Unfortunately, many music publishers give the impression of being superannuated and complacent, living entirely off the proceeds of orchestral part rentals for the few canonical works that are still under copyright. If they can't adjust to the new realities of digital distribution, they will become irrelevant.
After all, the only thing stopping many of us from using digital scores for our music-reading needs is the lack of a cheap, readily available tablet PC that can read PDF files.
Errrr. Wait a minute.