Friday, 14 October 2011

Digital humanities, music and the Material Text

Yesterday's Seminar in the History of Material Texts was given by Professor John Rink under the title 'The virtual Chopin'.  I often go to the seminars, but rarely write them up here.  This time I will, because I'm on a blogging roll, and because I do after all have a degree in music and therefore actually understood the ins-and-outs of the talk and discussion.

First photograph of Chopin, 1847
from Wikimedia Commons
What's the issue?
Editing the works of Chopin is a tricky business.  Each work is likely to exist in multiple sources, and these sources generally don't agree with each other.  Types of source include:
  •  preliminary sketches
  • reject public manuscripts
  • Stichvorlagen (copies from which music engravers created the plates to print from)
  • proof copies
  • 1st editions
    • These were usually simultaneously produced in England, Germany, and France, for copyright reasons.
      • Getting exemplars to three separate publishers happened in different ways through Chopin's life: sometimes proof sheets from one were sent to the other two, sometimes copies of one autograph MS would be made by an emanuensis, and at the end of Chopin's life he would make three copies of the MS himself.
    • They were printed in very small numbers at a time (25-100 copies), and corrections could be made after each run, so there are very many varying impressions of each edition.
  • Other autograph sources, such as music written in visiting books or given as gifts to patrons
  • Other non-autograph sources, such as pupils' annotations on printed copies.
Why does that matter?
The result of this multiplicity of sources are that it's not easy for editors and performers to determine what is the 'right' version.  If the French and English first editions have different notes in them, how do you choose which to print and which to play?

Rink identified a few places where copying or engraving errors have serious aural and structural implications for the music, most notably, the mistaken placement of a repeat sign in the first movement of the B-flat minor sonata.  The standard reading has the repeat marked as starting from bar 5, but Chopin's MS shows only a double bar here (no repeat dots) - the repeat should start from the very beginning of the movement, which makes a lot more harmonic sense.

A way through the thicket
It will be little surprise to hear that there is no 'right' answer to the question. Particularly in the case of Chopin, whose compositional methods and style are heavily influenced by performance and improvisation, a single definitive version of a work simply can't be pinned down.  But there are ways of helping to decide what you should do:
  • no source should be considered in isolation
  • don't take the contents of the source at face value: interpret them in context
  • the 'law of averages' is likely to be inappropriate: just because 7 sources have one thing and 1 has something else, that lonely 1 might be more 'valid' than the others.
  • multiple interpretations may be valid, even though you can only perform one at a time.

Editors vs performers
The solutions will be different for editors and performers.  Performers can only play one version of any given bar (or beat, or chord) at a time.  They *have* to choose--and they generally don't like to, wanting to be able to play the 'right version--but are also at liberty, if they can justify it on musical and historical grounds, to choose as they please (and perhaps even different version at different parts of a work).  Editors, however, have a responsibility to give the full picture, as far as is feasible.  In the case of the multiple variants of Chopin, it's pretty hard to show them all on a printed score.

The digital bit
Digital technology obviously ways of presenting all the variants that cannot be allowed for in print publications. Rink leads two research projects with online outputs:
The second allows the side-by-side comparison of individual bars from manuscripts and first editions.

It's amazing, and somewhat overwhelming, for the lay (or lay-ish) person to be able to compare all these different versions.  But it's certainly a good thing.  Without being overly flashy, or getting caught up in theory or grand claims, this is a very useful thing.

And that's pretty much all I have to say.
Screenshot of opening of Ballade no. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47. Note that the first printed bar (1st impression of French 1st edition) has a missing flat in front the the second D, which is corrected in the next image, the 2nd French impression.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, very illuminating, thanks.