The Well-Tempered Clavier

In this article, we shall discuss – albeit in no depth whatsoever and try to give an answer to what is the best edition of any given piano work.

Before I start, please, do let me ask you the following questions: Can it ever be an ultimate edition for a pianist to follow? Can it ever be an edition that will make every other edition obsolete? Is there any such edition available to us today? I suspect, that to all those three questions your answer would, hopefully, be a resounding “No”.

At this point let’s quickly define what an “edition”, per se, of a piano work, is; this applies to all other instruments: An “edition” is a notated view of how a work should be interpreted. In our case, what takes place is, that the piano editor, by hopefully following research, presents us with her/his own notated views of a piano work.

It’s vital to understand that there are many reasons for why we need editions for works of music. Some of them are:

  1. To correct mistakes that composers themselves explicitly admitted to have done in a composition.
  2.  To correct mistakes, the editor thought the composer might negligently have done.
  3.  For a composer to improve upon a composition by correcting passages or even adding more music.
  4.  To scholarly give a personal opinion of how a piece was intended to be interpreted by the composer.
  5.  To preserve a piece’s accurate future interpretation, after consultation with the composer.
  6.  To improve the readability of a piece.
  7.  To give our own, personal interpretational view on a work of music.

Can it ever be an ultimate edition?


To cut to the chase, I’m afraid that NO edition is or will ever be good enough. No edition of music will ever get close enough to a composer’s music intentions. No edition will ever mirror the composer’s mind.  Here are two reasons for why this happens:

a) A composer, axiomatically, can never express themselves precisely when notating their music. This is the first point. Here’s why: say, we have a piano piece. A composer can never (or is enormously hard)  do the following: notate how hard each key should be pressed by each finger on each hand; this is also almost impossible to achieve, because there are millions of pianos in this world so a composer has to accommodate his notation for all those instruments: impossible. Moreover, the composer if they want to be as accurate as possible, they will have to precisely notate the exact progression of the dynamics; for example, how should you crescendo from a Piano to Forte in a phrase? Should it be done robotically, increasing decibel by decibel? Should it crescendo with a more “curved” progression? What kind of curve should this progression have? If you go down that road, even more questions arise: For instance, how long a composer’s staccato should last in time on a Steinway Grand D or a Yamaha U1 A? As you can see, no composer can ever notate as precisely, and perhaps no composer wants to do just that.

The only way a composition could potentially and credibly be precisely notated (if ever), is when a composer pre-selects a particular instrument (model, etc.) to perform his composition, write her/his composition to only be performed by that particular instrument, making sure that this instrument doesn’t physically depreciate of course, then choose a specific time and date for the composition to be performed, be in constant consultation with a sole performer of that composition, and by fulfilling other extremely intricate requests.

b) The second reason for why no edition will ever be sufficient enough is because a composer understands the element of the existence of an interpreter. An interpreter of a work of music could essentially be a music editor, a music critic, a listener or a performer of course. The composer, in a way, has to accept that his music will always be vaguely interpreted by his interpreters. In music, every composition will always have an interpreter, and that is the definitive meaning of the word interpreter: You essentially interpret something the way you, personally, see it.

So, what a composer fundamentally does when notating her/his music, is to give a broad map of his composition – a composition that derived from his brain (which is impossible to pick) – to a performer, and leave the performer to make do with whatever musical tools they have accumulated through time, and hope that the performer will come as close as possible to his indented idea; hard.


Don’t throw away your edition, just yet.


Indeed, please do not throw away your, allegedly, obsolete edition just yet. There are a few reasons for why you should never do that – Here is a couple of them:

1. An obsolete edition can show us the provenance of how things were done in the past. Even if we think that an edition is valid no more, at the same time, we could seize the opportunity to taste the way earlier editors used to approach editing a piece, the tools they used and even the choice of symbols they preferred.  Indeed, we could keep an old edition as an objet d’art that could be of historical value in the future, for many reasons.

2. An objectionable edition can make us better editors: Well, if we are being given everything on a plate, we will never improve our skills in this never-ending world of music; so grab the opportunity and correct a faulty edition, if you can. Do use, perhaps, your preferred fingerings, or call your old teacher and ask them if indeed this composer meant to write that extra note at the end of that piece.


What is the best edition?


The best edition is the edition you currently possess. And you have to make the best of it.

I know what you are thinking: “But my edition has a zillion wrong fingerings”, or “Wait to see how out-of-style this trill is written in my edition”, “Oh, but the editor forgot that those instruments didn’t do those things back then” and other, well, silly remarks, if I may say.

Well, that’s life I’m afraid we have to accept this fact about editions; let me be unkind and ask you, why didn’t you write a better edition to be on the shelves of Chappel’s of Bond Street or The Juilliard Store in New York. If you think that the editors of those unacceptable editions were amateurs and goofs, why is that your edition is not celebrated in last month’s cover of Pianist Magazine? Indeed, why are you reading this article right now? Guess why; because you don’t have a clue which is the best edition. (I don’t think I’m getting too many likes on my Facebook page, after this article).

I’m sick and tired of that constant fault-finding and moaning that “there are always better editions”, and “I wish this edition did this, and I wish that edition did the other thing” and “yes, I suppose this is an ok edition, but the other one is better”, and all this nonsense. Get a grip – editions are there to help and suggest. Editions are not written in stone. If you don’t want to play them, fine. Just Buy the Urtexter Intergalactic Of The Ultimate Order Edition, or something. Terribly sorry to be so harsh.


The purpose of any edition should also be to teach us how to follow orders


Instead of this constant drivel about intolerable editions, I suggest that we first learn how to actually interpret those “wrong” editorial suggestions. An edition, be it wrong or correct, cannot salvage our incapability of performing something correctly. A bad or a good edition is not going to improve our technique or musicality (that shows through technique); well, not necessarily. I’m not saying that you should follow the edition that says that it’s better to play Chopin’s first study 0p.10 with your nose, but what I’m trying to say is that a bad edition, can at least teach us how to follow orders. Always, be gracious and give credit to an editor; you can always learn something from any edition.


The Remote Island


I just want to finish this, by asking you if I may, to try to relate to the following scenario;

Imagine that somehow you find yourself stranded on a remote island. You are stuck with a horrible edition of your favourite composer and you are just so eager to play their music. What, would you do? Would you just put the music down and refuse to play? Would you just say “no, I’m not playing this edition?” Or, would you try to improve upon this edition, by using your own musical capacities? – Capacities, that can never be completely perfected – What would you do? What is the right thing to do? Keep in mind, that you can never get the perfect edition.

In life, we are the ultimate editors of what comes to us.

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