Textual analysis and me, by Brian Jeffery

Since my teens before attending Oxford I have been involved with analysing texts and editing them, whether they be epics, poems, novels, administrative or legal documents, or music scores. So textual analysis has played a big part in my life, and I would like to write about that here. It will make it possible for me to pay tribute to the distinguished and wonderful people from whom I learned it and with whom I later practised and shared it.

You can let a text wash over you, like the man I once saw when the curtain fell at the end of a performance of Madame Butterfly, wholly overcome with emotion – or do I do him an injustice? Had he already done textual analysis on that libretto and only then allowed himself to be overcome with emotion? That is the ideal of ideals, in my experience.

Textual analysis means that you analyse a text, you take it apart, identifying its structure, putting it in its context and seeking its innermost meaning. Your motive may be just personal satisfaction and that’s fine. Or it may be to study or to teach a text to a class, or to be Hamlet on a stage or to be Callas singing. You take the text apart, you see how the writer may have echoed one line or one meaning at another place, may have made the consonants or vowels of one word echo another, or may have used even the very lengths of words, as in the long and short words in Macbeth, “This my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / making the green one red”.

Textual analysis is also what you do if you engage in the ancient and honourable field of study which is the establishment of texts, something of which I have done a lot. It goes back to the scholars and librarians of ancient Alexandria who established the texts of Homer from the many papyrus fragments that had survived to that time, and of course it goes back to even before them. They compared many different Homeric fragments in order to establish their texts. Today if you want to establish a professionally adequate text of something, whether it be literature, documents, music, or anything else, textual analysis is the largest part of what you will do. There isn’t at present a Wikipedia article entitled “Textual analysis”, but you will find a good Wikipedia article entitled “Textual criticism” which is about the particular situation where you have several varying sources for a work, and another entitled “Diplomatics” which is about the conventions used by individual documents.

When Callas prepares to sing the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, it seems to me that during those few seconds while the orchestra plays the introductory bars (from 2:00), her face changes, and I like to think that she has already analysed that text in depth and that it is the depth of meaning of that analysed text that she is about to reveal to us. Carlo Bergonzi said of her: “Callas studied the text, the meaning of the words, and as a result, she became a diva.”

In my case, my study of textual analysis began not of a text but of a picture and of a ground-level artefact. I had the good fortune to attend the oldest school in the world, the King’s School Canterbury – yes, the oldest school in the world, you will find it at number one in the Wikipedia article “List of oldest schools”, from the year 597, in the sixth century. The school is in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, and at that time the Precincts still had a night-watchman. Lying in a dormitory at night we could hear him calling out: “Eleven o’clock – fine night – and all’s well”. In the Water Tower of the Cathedral a framed drawing was at that time displayed, which was a bird’s eye view of the cathedral and monastery buildings, dating from the twelfth century. The original of the drawing is in the library of Trinity College Cambridge and is commonly known as the “waterworks” drawing, because it shows in detail the pipes that brought clean water from a spring outside the walls and then distributed water throughout the monastery. You can read about it here. Someone – was it the cathedral archivist? – suggested that I might go in for the Cathedral Prize, which was a prize donated by two ladies who lived in the Precincts for an essay on any aspect of the cathedral, by writing a comparison of the pipework in the twelfth-century drawing, with the still existing pipes when I was at the School.

It was the night-watchman who showed me the existing pipes. He said that they were in use when the cathedral had been bombed during the second world war less than twenty years earlier, and we walked up towards the old parade ground of the Buffs Regiment to where the source was.

Did I win the Cathedral Prize with that essay? Yes, I did.

The essay compared a text – in this case a drawing – with an actuality, and it was very good practice for analysis because in textual analysis you do a lot of comparing.

The next steps for me in textual analysis were normal schoolwork in which textual analysis was the normal thing that you did, whether you were studying a text in English or Latin or in my case French or German: you took it apart to discover in depth its structure and meaning. A particular step was a class in palaeography which the school arranged for three of us boys (another of whom was the later very well-known actor Oliver Davies) with the cathedral archivist Dr William Urry, who later became Reader in Medieval Latin Palaeography in the University of Oxford. He had a small house in the Precincts and a wonderful wife and two small children. We three boys worked our way through reproductions of medieval manuscripts and became adept at reading some of them.

That in its turn was a preparation for the next big event, in my last year at King’s. I had obtained an Open Scholarship to Christ Church Oxford, but at a rather young age, so it was decided that I would go to Oxford to take it up a year later than might be expected. So I had what would now be called a gap year. But instead of exploring remote parts of the globe, instead of what would certainly have been wonderfully exciting, to travel for example down the Amazon, I explored the manuscripts and printed books of the Middle Ages and later in Canterbury Cathedral library, and it was exciting indeed. It was like being in the footsteps of Schliemann while he excavated Troy. I read the twelfth-century manuscripts that are in the Cathedral Library, and especially the later ones from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which are about the King’s School. I saw in one manuscript the list of the Headmaster and pupils of the last year of the monastery school just before Henry VIII abolished the monastery in 1540, and I saw in another manuscript the list of the Headmaster and pupils of the new King’s School, and they were one and the same, showing that there really was continuity. As everyone knows, Henry VIII made a forceful change from Catholicism to Protestantism, and I saw that some of that last class of boys of the monastery school even went to Douai to be trained as Catholic priests with the aim of going in secret to England to keep the old faith alive, and one of them, Nicholas Morton, was even part of the Northern Rebellion, an attempt that failed to topple the new Protestantism.

It was informal teaching by Dr Urry during that year. I handled the actual manuscripts, I read them, transcribed them, and learned things like what to do in your transcript when a corner of a fragile manuscript is missing. Leave a blank? Invent something? No, you compare. You look at the context of the surrounding words and see if you can find a similar passage somewhere else in the same manuscript which might give you a clue about what the missing area might have contained.

As I was particularly studying the manuscripts that are about the School, Urry and I also looked at a relatively modern book from 1908, Schola regia cantuariensis: a history of Canterbury School commonly called the King’s School, by C.E. Woodruff who was a Canon of the Cathedral and himself an old boy of the School. He had died only two years before I arrived. You can read his memories of the school when he attended it, and he seems a decent old stick. But it looks as though he wasn’t trained in history, and he made a series of mistakes in the transliteration of manuscripts, or mistakes in interpreting them, which he wouldn’t have made if he had been a professional historian. Urry showed me the same manuscripts that Woodruff had cited, putting the actual manuscripts side by side with the transcriptions from them in Woodruff’s book, and they weren’t the same. So I learned a very valuable lesson: that if you want to write history, or to make an edition of something, you had better have some training in it before you publish.

At the end of the year I published my first book, Notes on the History of the King’s School Canterbury, published in an edition of three copies.

Urry was a wonderful man, learned and kind. He wanted to save things from destruction. He was a conservationist at least ten years ahead of his time. I don’t know the details, but I do know that a large part of the old Canterbury was demolished at that time in the 1950s because of the lack of concern for conservation of the city council of the time, I think especially where the modern main shopping centre is now. I’m writing about the years around 1956, and it was almost another twenty years before another conservationist, Adam Fergusson, was able to halt the systematic destruction of large swathes of the city of Bath at the hands of its barbaric council of that time, with his famous book The Sack of Bath. Forrester has written that when his book was published, first in the pages of the Times newspaper, the systematic destruction of Bath ceased overnight. No such luck for Canterbury where mostly only the large monuments have survived. Urry did what he could but had limited success.

He also spent time at the archives of the town council where the music books of the eighteenth century Canterbury Catch Club lay in damp conditions, and brought some of them to safety at the Cathedral Library where I understand that at least some of them still are today. As a result of reading through those music books at that time, and with the encouragement of Edred Wright the school’s music director of that time, I founded the King’s School Glee Club whose signature piece was Webbe’s “Glorious Apollo”. I understand that that Glee Club survived for a good few years after I left.

That year at Canterbury, paradoxical as it may seem, was essentially a year of postgraduate study before becoming an undergraduate.  Then I went up to Christ Church Oxford for three years as an undergraduate, and again the study was textual analysis. I was reading Modern Languages, that is to say the history of languages and of their literature. My essays for my tutor analysed a whole series of texts in French. One of them was the Chanson de Roland, another twelfth-century text, the story of the gallant Roland in battle. It so happens that the principal surviving manuscript of the Chanson de Roland is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the famous manuscript Digby 23. As an Oxford undergraduate I had access to the Bodleian, so I went there and ordered up the Digby manuscript and read the Chanson de Roland directly from that actual manuscript – again it was like discovering fantastic wonderful ruins. I took into the Bodleian the modern edition of the Chanson de Roland by Whitehead and I was able to compare the manuscript with the edition and see what the modern editor had done in passages where there were editing decisions to be made. I don’t remember finding any errors in his edition.

For my French tutorials at Oxford I used editions of the prescribed works which were always made by people who had done textual analysis on the work in question and had set out their results. I also came across the particular situation where an author wrote a work when he was young and then changed it when he was older. An example is the dramatist Pierre Corneille who wrote his famous play Le Cid in 1636 when he was young and then if I remember correctly published a very different text of it when he was older. What does a potential editor of the play do? Conflate them? I pretty soon discovered that that is not going to give you a very good mixture and that a good solution is to give both versions – something which I did myself, for example, in my later Sor edition, with the work op. 14 often known as Grand Solo, where there are several versions and in my edition I give both of the principal known versions.

But perhaps my most exciting work at Oxford on textual analysis was not in French but in German, in which I specialized in medieval German and my tutor was David McLintock, a wonderful man who shared my enthusiasm for discovery and introduced me to the nineteenth-century editions in the Taylorian Institution at Oxford and to the work of Karl Lachmann, who stands as a giant figure in the line of the Alexandria scholars who had worked on Homeric texts. Lachmann himself worked on Homer, but it was his work on Minnesangs Frühling and Walther von der Vogelweide that I studied. I was able to follow what Lachmann and his fellow scholars had done in establishing those Middle High German texts. I like to think that McLintock saw in me a fellow enthusiast. I see in the Wikipedia article on David McLintock: “One of his Oxford pupils was John le Carré and McLintock liked to think that George Smiley’s affectionate references to German studies owed something to his tutorials. In A Perfect Spy, le Carré describes his protagonist Pym’s dedication to McLintock’s disciplines: ‘By the end of his first term he was an enthusiastic student of Middle and Old High German. By the end of his second he could recite the Hildebrandslied and intone Bishop Ulfila’s Gothic translation of the Bible in his college bar to the delight of his modest court.’”. I didn’t intone Bishop Ulfila’s text in the college bar, but I most certainly shared McLintock’s infectious enthusiasm.

At the end of the three years the examiners awarded me a First (a first class honours degree). I understand that the present prime minister of the UK, Mr. Boris Johnson, when he was at Oxford dearly wanted to get a First but the examiners didn’t give it to him.

Meanwhile I had begun to play the lute and to apply textual analysis and textual criticism to the many surviving manuscripts of Dowland and the other English lute composers, in which the same pieces occur again and again but with many small differences and where an intending editor – or indeed just a player – has to decide which manuscript or manuscripts to play from, or which version or versions to use in making an edition. Although it was music, exactly the same factors came into play when making those decisions as though it were a literary text, for example if it were a poem by Robert Burns which might appear in more than one source and with differences. I made a study of the many sources for many different instruments of the works of Antony Holborne, a study that was immediately published in Musica Disciplina.

In France, celebrated editors of ancient French texts were Gaston Paris and his successor Joseph Bédier. In that context, another wonderful person at Oxford was Ruth Harvey of St Anne’s College who had written an article entitled “From the troubadours to Tommy Steele” showing the remarkable similarity in the metaphors and even in the stanza-structure, between troubadour lyrics and modern song lyrics. She gave me an edition made by Gaston Paris in 1875 called Chansons du XVe siècle which I still have, which awakened my interest in the texts of late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century French songs by Josquin des Prez, Loyset Compère and the like.

I became aware of a principal solution proposed to the question of what to do when you have several differing sources for a text: simply publish one of the several sources without trying to incorporate anything from the other sources. This was a solution adopted especially by Bédier, on the very sensible grounds that if you take some readings from one of the sources and other readings from other sources, you end up with something which doesn’t correspond to any one of them and which has a mixed place in history because the different readings come from different cultural milieux or different dates. Then, what do you do when your source has, or appears to have, an error? Simply “correct” it without further thought? That is a dangerous course indeed.

I produced an edition of the early printed pamphlets of French song texts of around 1520 which evidently are very closely related to those Chansons du XVe siècle, an edition which I entitled Chanson Verse of the early Renaissance. Once again the subject presented the now familiar situation that the various pamphlets included the same song-texts but with differences, some slight and some not so slight. Again, which version to publish? I based the decisions on the experience which by now I had.

A special kind of challenge in this particular case came with the realisation that the only known copy of one of the principal pamphlets was missing. It had been sold in a book auction in Paris in 1897. Where was it now? I hunted through all the catalogues of the Bibliothèque Nationale in case it might be there, including their music department because it was a collection of song-texts, but it was not to be found. I consulted the printed auction catalogue itself, in the actual copy in the Huntington Library in California which has handwritten annotations of who bought each lot at the actual auction in 1897, but it didn’t help. In the end I consulted one of the curators at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and it turned out that the missing item was indeed there but catalogued in a small separate card-catalogue that one wouldn’t have known was there. It was the excitement of a discovery.

I had the book Chanson Verse of the early Renaissance printed myself, and I still have copies available from Tecla Editions, which will interest anyone studying the French chansons of those times. The printer of that edition was Artes Gráficas Soler in Valencia in Spain and this year 2021 we celebrate fifty years since it appeared. They are still there, the oldest firm of any kind still in continuous existence in Valencia, and in 2017 they printed my new book España de la Guerra which is on the political and military songs of the war in Spain from 1808 to 1814 (known in Spain as the Guerra de la Independencia).

I saw that singers of medieval and Renaissance French at that time didn’t have an easy place to go to find out about the pronunciation of their texts. The information was available but in very specialized books such as that by Édouard Bourciez. So together with Jeannine Alton, a wonderful lady who had been my tutor in French philology, I produced a small handbook on the pronunciation of medieval and Renaissance French for singers and others, Bele buche e bele parleure, in which the information about French pronunciation in the years 1100 to 1600, based on the work of scholars such as Bourciez, was set out in simple form. I chose twelve examples from French literature from that period which the late Derek Coltman kindly agreed to speak with the pronunciation of the period in each case, and I formed a small group of musicians to perform musical settings of six of them, all of which I issued on a cassette (now digitized and still today available online). The book was well received in Early Music and the book and the spoken and musical examples are still available from Tecla in both printed and digital form.

Theatre is another of my interests, and in 1967 I wrote a doctoral thesis for the University of St Andrews which was immediately published by OUP as French Renaissance Comedy. It describes the remarkable parallels between the comedy of ancient Greece and Rome and the native farce in France at the time of the great enthusiasm for classical literature there in the early and mid-sixteenth century.

The music department of Oxford University Press invited me to make an edition of some lute music, and I did, entitled Elizabethan Popular Music for the Lute, which I’m sorry to say is no longer available. Here it was necessary to decide exactly what to provide for users of the book: a facsimile of the original piece in each case? A transcription of each piece into newly written-out tablature? A transcription into piano two-stave notation as David Lumsden had done a few years earlier in his anthology of lute music? I decided to publish for each piece the facsimile and also the transcription into piano notation, and that solution was adopted for all the ten or so titles in that series, with different editors. Here we come across the same situation which I mentioned before, about which version or versions to provide out of several possibilities.

OUP also invited me to publish with them some transcriptions of lute music for guitar, which I did with two sets of pieces by Dowland and five other items, which are still selling well today on the Tecla website. They also invited me to publish with them some pieces by Sor, which I did.

There followed my facsimile edition of the Complete Works for Guitar of Sor, first with a firm in Miami and New York. Copies of that edition arrived in Barcelona, Sor’s city of birth, and people there tell me that that edition was a sensation there because they did not even know previously that such works existed.

Then I published a new facsimile edition of Sor’s guitar works this time in the UK with my own firm Tecla Editions, then the Complete Works of Giuliani in 39 volumes. Then the New Complete Works for Guitar of Sor, this time in re-engraved form, and quite a large number of other works, especially songs, with my firm Tecla Editions. My aim is to make my professionally edited editions available even to the merest beginner. Where it is an edition of music I always have the edition looked through and checked before publication by a professional musician.

But the edition with which I consider that I have given the most benefit to musicians in general – huge benefit in my opinion – is my 1989 edition of the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven in facsimiles of the earliest editions. I published it because I had done a comparison. I had compared the first and early editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas with the modern editions of those same sonatas, and every single modern edition of them that I was able to lay my hands on and examine changed a great many notes without saying why. Tens of thousands of changes of the notes? without any stated reason? It didn’t make sense. So I made this facsimile of the original editions of the sonatas, with the very generous cooperation of the Austrian National Library who hold copies of those earliest editions in their Hoboken Collection, in order that pianists, especially students, should be able to see what Beethoven actually published and to play from that if they so chose. Why play through the curtain of unexplained changes in modern editions of the sonatas when in my edition you can play, as it were, the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven edited by Ludwig van Beethoven?

Artes Gráficas Soler in Valencia printed that Beethoven edition and they did a wonderful job, so wonderful that there was an unfortunate and unforeseen result. So astonishingly beautiful is the edition that many libraries that bought it catalogued it as what they call Case, meaning that it couldn’t be taken out of the library. So the unfortunate students at that university or conservatory couldn’t play from it. That was contrary to the whole intention of the edition. But now I have made that edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas available in print from Tecla Editions at an accessible price, so that any pianist or student can play from it without having tens of thousands of notes changed by modern editors without stated reason. Also I have made the edition available in nkoda, so if you are a nkoda subscriber or if you are attached to an institution and your institution is an institutional subscriber to nkoda, you have online access to my Beethoven edition. Try it, you’ll like it!

At the moment I’m looking again at more recent editions of those sonatas to see whether more recent editors have done the same as their predecessors.

So there you have it. That’s how I came to take an interest in textual analysis and specifically in making editions of both literature and music. My thanks to those teachers and friends, now alas mostly departed, to whom I owe that interest. Currently as well as projects in music and especially songs, I’m making a series of editions of texts written by visitors to the Cyclades islands in Greece from the fifteenth century onwards.

Brian Jeffery