More on Ives – Day 2

April 18, 2009 at 6:09 pm 2 comments

Mr. Thompson’s next question:

Tied to the former question: do you agree with the notion of making “Critical” editions of Ives’s works, after taking into account that Ives’s continued to revise them, even after printings – can we say that one version of a piece is the correct version? Here I talk about even the many insignificant revisions, that would warrant a small footnote in an urtext score, not necessarily large revision problems, like the concord and the fourth symphony.

One of the nice things about having a blog is that you get to fantasize about your own personal utopia. And in mine, it would include having a funeral for the term “critical edition,” much in the way that “def” was buried in 1997. It is not that I think that what critical editors actually do needs to be stopped; quite the opposite. Worthy editorial projects proliferate for anyone with the time, inclination, and appropriate copyright clearances to pursue them.

Let me explain: I think that too much baggage has accumulated around our notion of critical editions in the 150 years or so that people have been applying philology and other techniques to musical texts in the pursuit of a carefully reasoned score appropriate for performance. And I think that is enough time to see that the notion of a “definitive” text is, and will remain, intensely problematic not so much because the historical documents themselves are changing, but our relationship to them is. All editions are a product of their time. Some — I’m thinking in particular of the Liber Usualis — have stayed relevant through to the present day. But new editions of Bach, Mozart, and others underscore how the needs of performers change over time. Margaret Bent, for one, has explored how changing understandings of “authenticity” in performance practice have colored approaches to early music editing.

Think of the parallel of scholarship. What if someone wrote the definitive study of something for all time? It would be kind of the end of that field of study, wouldn’t it? And, I’m probably blanking, but very few studies from, say, 100 years ago, remain completely definitive. And this has a lot to do with new sources, but it also has to do with changing interpretations of sources. So I am kind of uncomfortable with the project of attempting to establish an edition that purports to forestall all future editorial work on a piece.

I’m not arguing, of course, for any kind of relativistic relationship to sources – things shouldn’t just be re-edited for the sake of doing it, and stemma and decisions shouldn’t just be thrown out because they’re not new enough for us any more. But I don’t think that editors can know the future, and, although connotatively “definitive” means one thing, denotatively it suggests that no further work will ever be necessary on a piece.

Which brings us back to Ives. A number of pieces by Ives already have been re-edited – H. Wiley Hitchcock’s monumental work on 129 Songs is probably the best example of this. I think 129 will hold us in good stead for quite some time; I’d hazard a guess that in my lifetime no one will attempt a similarly comprehensive consideration of Ives’s songs (but there I go, trying to guess the future). Yet there have already been some complaints about the edition – for example Peter Dickinson raised some interesting questions on it at the (ever recurrent in these posts) Ives Vocal Marathon. And I think questioning and pulling at the seams of an edition is totally acceptable, and does nothing to diminish Hitchcock’s accomplishment – after all, if people don’t look under the hood what is the point of having an apparatus in the first place?

So I guess my answer would be no, I don’t think there can be a definitive edition of Ives for all time. But, at least in my view, that does not make his situation particularly unusual. Also, editions of his music are still worth doing, since they are an essential means of bringing attention to a his work.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

On Ives – 1 On Ives – 3


  • 1. danblim  |  April 20, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Jim Wierzbicki over here at MUSA also hates the term “critical edition.” I like his suggested replacement of “scholarly edition.”

    The day may come.

  • 2. Lawrence Dunn  |  May 30, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Perhaps it’s interesting to compare musicological editing to the editing of Literature.

    I don’t think anyone would have the audacity to suggest that their edited version of Hamlet was ‘definitive’ – and claiming that edition is ‘urtext’ is not something that is done in this scheme of work (particularly as there are no MS copies of the plays). I think scholars, and particularly Shakespeare scholars, accept that all we can do is produce ‘versions’. Shakespeare scholarship in particular has become a little bit outrageous in the last 30 years, particularly the Oxford and Arden editions, with more footnotes and introductions than original text. Editors have attempted to produce one version, but allow readers to view all the other versions simultaneously. Perhaps this is par for the course – and actually, as a student, I’m glad of the effort scholars put in to the difficult task – but imaginably acting from these editions is impractical to say the least.

    I wonder whether ‘period’ performance might stretch to Ives, or, say, Mahler (where conductors reassemble or reorchestrate the text in rehearsal). Plausibly, bits of a long Mahler symphony could be cut, just like bits of Hamlet or Lear are, but for some reason conductors and music literati believe that musical continuity is unalterable. But I think what’s clear is the critical edition is not what is plonked on the stand, but is what comes out when people play things – the (just or unjust) criticism of performers is the last, and most definitive, stage.



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