Blind Leaders of the Blind

whose music is it, anyway?

One of the great boons of our modern age is the ever-increasing availability of Urtext editionsscholarly editions that attempt to present the composer's score in the way that he intended it, with any editorial additions (pun intended) clearly marked to avoid confusion.  My generation was perhaps the first to be reared mostly on Henle, Bärenreiter, Wiener Urtext, and other such worthies. But why is it taking so long for older, un-scholarly editions to be consigned to eternal perdition?  Having reached a market share of perhaps 60% (a number plucked from my own anecdotal observation), Urtexts have rather stalled, while those ugly old monsters continue stubbornly to persist in the backpacks of unsuspecting students and, more alarmingly, on the shelves of slovenly teachers.

It should be pointed out that, for all the invaluable help we derive from sites such as the Petrucci library; at the International Music Score and Library Project, they are undoubtedly compounding the problem by providing (legitimately free) access to old public-domain editions of Bach, Mozart, or Schubert.  Why spend the twenty, forty, sixty dollars on an Urtext, then wait for it to arrive by snail-mail, when instant gratification can be had at the click of a mouse for the cost of, say, fourteen sheets of copy paper?

Meanwhile, the deep dank corners of orchestra and opera libraries (actually, they are increasingly brightly lit, beautifully organized, and humidity-controlled) continue to be dominated by that old enemy of excellence—inertia.  As any conductor or librarian who has ever prepared a set of orchestral parts for performance knows all too well, it is a process that requires a good deal of time, sometimes a great deal of time.  Why go to the trouble, then, to replace a reliable old set with a costlier, and less predictable, new one?—after all, no one is beating down the gates for an Urtext reading, not orchestral musicians, not critics, not audiences, and, shamefully, not even conductors.

So what are we left with, after the obvious disclaimers (not all old editions are bad—some are even very good; on the contrary, not all Urtext editions are good; it's the quality of the performance that matters, not what materials the performers are using; etc.)?  What we are left with is this:  It is difficult enough to enter into the composer's inner world, and to become finely attuned to his idiosyncrasies, without the massive, often impregnable, roadblock of editorial "assistance" that so tightly envelops his intentions that scarcely a faint echo of them remains, buried beneath the rubble, inscrutable and indiscernible even to the most experienced and empathetic eye.

And so I say to Joseffy, von Bülow, Haas, Schirmer, Dover, International, and all your kith and kin—begone!  Your time has long passed.  Be like Macbeth's

walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.