By Alexander Dean

The last UnderScore post outlined three approaches to dealing with accidentals, framing the issue in terms of editorial priorities. Before establishing priorities for the end product, the editor should first carefully interrogate the source itself, especially for repertoires that predate common practice and thus require the most “translation” into modern notation. These usually are best suited to Approach 1, “Form over Function,” which prioritizes editorial transparency. In this post, I’ll explore how to negotiate this approach in greater detail.

Strategies that prioritize form over function are to be used with caution, and not just because of the visual clutter they produce. Being heavier on editorial notation and/or critical apparatus also makes such editions more prone to error and confusion—requiring an extra measure of care on the part of the volume editor, house editor, and proofreaders. Here are two examples that successfully navigate these dangerous waters.

One option is to include all the source inflections in the edition (assuming they are not typos, etc., which can be dealt with otherwise), even though some of them are redundant with modern conventions, with all editorial inflections given in brackets, whether they be diatonic or accidental. Michael Wilhelm Nordbakke’s edition of Giuseppe Antonio Bernabei, Orpheus ecclesiasticus (B195) takes this approach:

Figure 1

In this short movement, the relationship between the inflections assumed by the source and those mandated by modern notation are clear: in the first violin, measure 4, the second d' needs no inflection in the source, understood, as part of a descending line and at a few notes’ remove from the preceding sharp, to be played natural; the same is true of the last note in measure 5. The bracketed natural is not a correction to the source, but only points out what has been added to satisfy the modern notational mandate. In measure 7, however, again in the first violin, the second d' is at a similar remove, but appears as part of an embellishment figure surrounded by two raised pitches, and therefore can be assumed to be raised as well—the modern edition need only leave it and let the barlines do their job.

Another method might use critical notes to account for editorial inflections: Jasmin Melissa Cameron chose this approach, for instance, in her edition of Giovanni Maria Ruggieri’s Trio Sonatas, Op. 4 (B185).

Figure 2

Critical notes allow for a more nuanced description of the relationship between edition and source inflections. One of the critical notes for the second movement of Ruggieri’s sonata 6 (shown above), for instance, reads: “M. 3, Vn. 1, note 4, natural in absentia.” Note the choice of “in absentia” rather than “natural is lacking”: although this source does contain barlines, they do not govern the pitch inflection as the modern barlines do. For that reason, the natural on note 4 is not “lacking,” since natural signs are not used in the source in this manner. Cameron’s natural in the edition does not replace a “missing” symbol from the source, it merely applies the symbol made necessary by modern convention: it is a translation of the source notation into modern notation, rather than an editorial adjustment of the source notation.

These two approaches, however, while satisfying the rigorous test of source transparency, are not always necessary, and can clog up the transcription with editorial markings and/or the apparatus with critical notes, each one of which increases the danger of a typo in the edition. So before plunging virtuously into a rigorous but complex editorial methodology—before making an a priori decision about your editorial priorities—ask yourself a few questions about the source:

  • How clear is the source in and of itself?
  • Am I making many editorial judgments about pitch inflections, or am I generally transcribing what is obvious in the source?
  • Are performers or scholars likely to need to track down the inflection markings of each note in the source in order to make satisfactory use of the edition?
  • What elements of the source are most in need of strict critical supervision and documentation, and how can my editorial methodology bring that documentation easily to the reader’s fingertips?

Being rigorous in your preliminary questions will help you set your editorial priorities and devise a clear and effective editorial method. Your copyeditors as well as your readers will thank you.


Alexander Dean is a house editor with A-R Editions.