The ancient and honorable profession of textual scholarship and the place of music editions within that profession

by Brian Jeffery

(You can also read this article as a pdf showing the article as it appeared in printed form in Soundboard for March 2023.)

Biographical note by the editor of Soundboard, Robert Ferguson:

Brian Jeffery goes back a long way with the GFA, being almost (not quite) a founder member of it and having an almost complete run of Soundboard. He taught French Renaissance at St Andrews and at UC Berkeley, and played lute and guitar in many concerts. Then he published Fernando Sor: Composer and Guitarist and the complete works for guitar by Sor, which people said at the time they didn’t even know existed. Now he runs Tecla Editions ( and is thinking about taking up the lute again.

When I was eight years old I travelled with my mother in a Sunderland flying boat from Singapore to the island of Labuan. On the way over, the pilot invited me into the cockpit. He sat me down in the pilot’s seat and put the control stick into my hands. I moved the stick a little to the right and the whole plane moved a little to the right; I moved the stick a little to the left and the whole plane moved a little to the left. I was flying the plane! It was wildly exciting.

Six years later, as I described in my article for the fiftieth anniversary of Tecla Editions in Soundboard of December 2021, I had my first experience of textual scholarship when I worked with the twelfth century “waterworks” map at Canterbury and that was pretty exciting as well. And then so was my “gap year” at the cathedral library at Canterbury which I also wrote about in that article, reading medieval and later documents and studying them and transcribing them and even publishing them; I wrote in my article that it was like treading in the footsteps of Schliemann while he excavated Troy.

So textual scholarship in my experience is a pretty thrilling thing, and I’m not the only one to have that enthusiastic view of it. Here is Neil Fraistat, the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship of 2013, writing on the back cover of the book: “The expert contributors to this volume . . . express the sheer intellectual excitement of a critical scholarly discipline entering a new phase of its existence” and on his page 2 he writes about “the intellectual excitement of a crucial scholarly discipline”. And here is Jerome J. McGann (Figure 1), author of the influential and reflective book A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism of 1983, citing right at the beginning of his book, before even the text of his book begins: “In short, let us provoke them – and our readers, and ourselves – to thought, which is the purest of scholarly pleasures”.

Here is McGann’s photo: it certainly looks as though he enjoys what he does!

And here is the reaction of a group of doctoral students who had been assigned McGann’s Critique to read as classwork, when they rejoined in class their professor the late D.C. Greetham, author of the handbook Textual Scholarship, an Introduction, of 1992. Greetham wrote: “I certainly did not imagine that the requirement [to read McGann’s Critique] would result in a collectively composed calypso, sung in our final session to guitar and other less easily defined instruments, but there it was – a group of serious young doctoral students spiritedly singing the praises of ‘that man McGann’, who had spoken to them more effectively and more directly than the pundits of the textual establishment”. FOOTNOTE 1

FOOTNOTE 1: From Greetham’s foreword to a re-edition of McGann’s Critique, cited from the 1999 reprint of the Critique, page ix.

It’s worth noting that those were surely not mostly music students, because Greetham was a specialist in English; yet when they wanted to express their pleasure at McGann’s Critique, it was with their calypso and a guitar.

What is textual scholarship?

Textual scholarship, in music as in literature, in guitar music as in any other music, is the study of the works in question with special attention to the actual sources – the manuscripts and printed books and scores – in which those works have come down to us. It includes the theoretical aspects of that study, and it includes the actual making of editions.

I could just give you the history of textual scholarship, but you can easily get that, if you want, from the internet. So instead of that I’m going to give the history of textual scholarship in highly abbreviated form, mentioning as we go some of the things that I myself have found interesting or of particular importance, or which have had an effect on my own editions, or which were even – dare I say it again? – exciting. I will look especially at the remarkable developments in the field of textual scholarship that have taken place in the last ten or twenty years, and once again I’m not the only one to find them – well, exciting.

Greetham in his handbook divides the study of textual scholarship into stages, of which the final and culminating stage is often the making of an edition of the work in question. He lists the various stages of that study and puts the making of an edition at the successful end of the journey, after you have covered all the earlier stages of the necessary investigation, beginning with the finding and listing of all known sources (which is what I did when I travelled all over Europe listing all the copies of early editions of Sor’s music that I could find); then organizing all that information and setting it into shape (which is what I did when I wrote the Catalogue in my book Fernando Sor Composer and Guitarist); then more stages, then finally the making of an edition, which is what I did with my edition the New Complete Works for Guitar of Sor of 2004.

Greetham, by the way, was a contemporary of mine at Oxford, even though I didn’t meet him then.

Let’s ask: who exactly practises textual scholarship? What exactly do they do? What procedures do they follow? Is it relevant to music? Is it important for an ordinary guitarist or other musician to know about? I shall tackle those questions as we go along.

Textual scholarship and music

My readers might first ask whether textual scholarship is relevant to music, and of course specifically to editions of guitar music. Yes, indeed it is relevant, greatly so. Greetham makes it clear several times in the Introduction to his handbook that the field of textual scholarship specifically includes music as well as literature. G. Thomas Tanselle in his A Rationale of Textual Criticism of 1989 has several passages in which he meditates on in what way, precisely, a musical work exists. James Grier, the author of the book The Critical Editing of Music of 1996, refers quite often to McGann and has himself contributed to scholarly work on editions theory (ecdotics, stemmatology). And the new 688-page Handbook of Stemmatology of 2020 (stemmatology is just one part of editions theory) has a whole chapter on the place of stemmatology in music scholarship.

So yes, even though the theoretical discussion of editing has historically taken place mostly in the field of literature rather than in the field of music, nevertheless the problems and the solutions in editing are the same in both fields but with the added dimension of performance in the case of music, just as theatrical works, plays, share in the same editing challenges and also include a performative element.

Who does textual scholarship?

Textual scholarship, being the study not just of editions, or of works, or of actual sources, but also of the theory and methodology to be used when studying them and editing them, is studied and taught and practised in universities, at postgraduate level. For example, the 37 contributors to the Handbook of Stemmatology and the twelve contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship are all university professors or are engaged in advanced research. And indeed, why would it not be so? Literature and musicology are both taught in universities, so it is natural that the theory and practice of establishing the texts of that same literature and that same music should be university subjects, indeed postgraduate subjects. I myself had my formation in textual scholarship first at Canterbury and then at Oxford, as I described in my article in Soundboard on the fiftieth anniversary of Tecla Editions.

On whether or not you need a theory to make an edition, the famous bibliographer R.B. McKerrow put it like this in 1939 about beginning the process of making an edition: “One must have theories [of editing] of some kind on which to begin!” (the exclamation mark is his). FOOTNOTE 2 So if you make a professional edition, including of music, you need a theory before you start, and the place where editions theory is authoritatively discussed and taught is in universities.

FOOTNOTE 2: R.B. McKerrow, Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare: A study in editorial method (Oxford, 1939), page vi.

Reception theory

The study of who exactly editions are made for, and who actually uses them, is called reception theory. That brings me to the question of who exactly I make my own editions for. Let’s have a look.

I would say that I make editions not addressed only to specialists, nor addressed only to non-specialists, but editions which while they one hundred percent satisfy the professional requirements for a professional edition, they at the same time remain accessible to the student or to the ordinary cultured person. I worked with editions of that kind when I was at Oxford, especially editions of French and German literary texts such as the poems of Goethe or the Song of Roland. That duality, of professional and accessible, is what all my editions aim at, and it is what, I think, all my editions achieve.

From antiquity onward

The editing of texts has a long and illustrious history, from ancient Alexandria (and doubtless before), through Greek and Roman literature, Biblical studies, medieval studies, Renaissance editors, Shakespeare studies, music editions, modern literature, and now some very modern fields of interest which I shall mention below. When you think about it, every single text or piece of music that reaches us in a modern edition, from Homer through Aristotle through the Bible, through Shakespeare, through music editions, even including new works written just yesterday, is the work of an editor working in the field of textual scholarship.

So let’s begin with the librarians of ancient Alexandria who made texts for the Odyssey and the Iliad out of the many papyrus fragments that they had. Then came ancient Greek and Roman authors – Tacitus, Livy, Juvenal, Aristophanes, Aristotle and so on. In pre-Renaissance times people began to read those ancient texts again, but they had only manuscripts that dated often from a thousand years later than their authors had lived – that is a whole millennium during which the manuscripts were copied and re-copied nobody knows how many times until we arrive at the extant manuscripts.

And the surviving manuscripts for every individual work in all cases differ from each other in their readings. How do you deal with that if you are trying to make editions of those texts?

That brings me to a characteristic which has been grappled with – or celebrated, depending on your point of view as we shall see – through all the centuries of textual scholarship debate, which is that your sources, that is to say the surviving manuscripts or the surviving printed editions, practically always differ from each other, they have variants. Indeed it has been said that there is no such thing as two identical original manuscripts, or scarcely any such thing as two identical copies of a printed source, for any ancient text or indeed for any text including music right up to the end of the eighteenth century and sometimes a bit further. So what do you do about variants if you are an editor? Do you just edit one source, or do you take readings from various sources and paste them together as it were into one new text?

Best-text editions and eclectic editions

If you make an edition from only one source, your edition is called a “best-text” edition. You choose the source which seems to you to be the “best” (for whatever reason) and you make an edition from that source and only from that source. The term “best-text” is the universally used professional term in English for that. A best-text edition is rigorous because it presents a text which actually existed at one moment in time.

If on the other hand you make up a text which contains readings from several different original sources for the same work, pasting together those readings from different sources, then your edition is called an eclectic edition, sometimes called a critical edition. Very many editions commonly used, including for example of the four gospels of the New Testament, are eclectic editions.

The problem with an eclectic edition, however, is that if you construct your text out of readings from different sources, sources which come from probably different places, different dates, different scribal or printing or creative practices and traditions, different political influences, you end up, as has often been said, with an edition that presents a text that never was. Your text never existed at any time in the form of the text which you have made. The Swiss writer Hans Zeller put it succinctly like this in 1975: “an eclectic editor contaminatingly synchronizes that which occurred diachronically”. FOOTNOTE 3

FOOTNOTE 3 “Structure and Genesis in Editing: On German and Anglo-American Textual Editing”, in Contemporary German Editorial Theory, Ann Arbor, 1995, page 106; cited in Handbook of Stemmatology, page 526.

And the problem with that is that, importantly, often people studying the work in question, sometimes even when they are respected scholars, assume that your eclectic edition is a historically exact text when in fact it isn’t: they may base their conclusions on your edition perhaps not even realizing that your edition doesn’t have historical exactitude. The scholar and editor Fredson Bowers wrote: “Many a literary critic has investigated the past ownership and mechanical condition of his second-hand automobile, or the pedigree and training of his dog, more thoroughly than he has looked into the qualifications of the text on which his theories rest” (Greetham, Textual Scholarship, page 3).

To be fair, there are sometimes good reasons to make an eclectic edition. One good reason is to provide a textus receptus, a standard text, for example of Biblical texts where a standard text is wanted for use in religious ceremonies. Another good reason for making an eclectic edition would be for users who don’t usually have time to look into the details of editing. Cultured people might go to the theatre to see a Shakespeare play or a Verdi opera, but they may not have time in their lives to study details of editing; they are too busy running the national railway system (I’m thinking of an old friend here) or pursuing the commercial interests of their companies. So if you are an editor it can be a worthwhile task to make editions for those people and those editions can be eclectic. But you must state what you are doing.

So out of the two most frequent types of modern editions of classical works including music, best-text and eclectic, best-text is the more rigorous. Best-text presents the reader (or the performing actor or the performing musician) with a text which did actually exist at one specific moment in the past, and all my editions so far are best-text and therefore more rigorously exact than any eclectic edition can be. And I came to that position probably in my case because of that gap year where I was dealing with administrative documents where accuracy and authenticity of date were important, not reception theory.

Lachmann, Gaston Paris, and Joseph Bédier

Let’s pick up the story with Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), a German scholar who worked on the manuscript sources of Greek and Latin texts, of the Bible, and of medieval literature. I came across his work on Minnesang (medieval German poetry) when I was at Oxford. Lachmann is famous especially for the idea of seeking an original lost text (that is to say the lost original text of an author, the Urtext) through the examination of common errors in surviving manuscripts. The French scholar Gaston Paris as a young man studied in Germany and himself made Lachmannian-style editions.

Karl Lachmann


Joseph Bédier was a student of Gaston Paris and at first followed the example of his mentor, including in an edition of the medieval work called the Lai de l’ombre which he made early on, in 1913. However, Bédier then thought more deeply about the making of editions; he examined many editions of various works which had then recently been made; and in 1928 he published that article which I mentioned in Soundboard FOOTNOTE 4 in which he famously pointed out that stemmata in editions of the Lachmannian type weren’t working and that the very structure of the stemmata that were published was not reliable. And he stated in the article that it seemed to him that it was best just to choose one manuscript source and one only and edit from that one source only. That is what is today known as a best-text edition.

Joseph Bédier: “La tradition manuscrite du Lai de l’ombre: réflexions sur l’art d’éditer les anciens textes”, Romania 54 (1928), 161-196, 321-356.

Joseph Bédier


Bédier and music

Bédier’s best-text idea may very well have come to him from music. In 1912, that is to say long before his article of 1928, Bédier in collaboration with the music historian Jean Beck published an edition of the chansons (song-texts) of the thirteenth-century poet Colin Muset together with the surviving music. Bédier edited the words and Beck edited the music. And this edition with music already in 1912 presents what we today would call a best-text edition. Here for example is the editorial note on the sources for the first song, “Volez oïr la muse Muset?”: “Manuscrits: K N X; Texte de K”. That is to say, that for this particular chanson three manuscripts are extant, named for short K and N and X, and that this edition presents the version of K and of K only, without any readings from those other two manuscripts (even though in the musical commentary some details from those other two manuscripts are mentioned).

Post-Second-World-War editing

Came the Second World War. Came scholarship after the war and the emphasis now was on scholars of the UK and the US. A famous name was that of Fredson Bowers who had been a code-breaker in that war. Other famous names from that time are W.W. Greg and G. Thomas Tanselle, author of the deeply thoughtful A Rationale of Textual Criticism of 1989 in which he has a lot to say about music.

In 1983 came McGann’s Critique, the book which caused those doctoral students to sing the calypso to their tutor. In his Critique McGann argues in favour of taking all aspects of study and editing into account when you edit: to think about literary analysis as well, and political analysis, and reception theory, and all kinds of other aspects especially social aspects.

Came 1989 with the essay by Bernard Cerquiglini, Éloge de la variante (‘In praise of variants’), in which Cerquiglini declares that the existence of variants isn’t a problem, it is an opportunity: that when a work survives in several sources, each source has its own value, its own milieu, its own way of proceeding; each source is a revitalizing re-creation of the text. Therefore, if you are planning an edition, it will be admirable if you will edit just one source, or perhaps edit some or all of the sources each one of them separately.

That, of course, as has often been pointed out, brings us back to Bédier’s idea of editing just one source rather than seeking to combine or adapt several sources.

New and exciting fields of textual scholarship

Michelle Warren’s chapter “The politics of textual scholarship” in the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship of 2013 enables us to think of textual scholarship not just as a bibliographical endeavour as it often was in the twentieth century, but as a procedure which itself demonstrates its own sometimes hidden political roots. For example, Warren shows how Bédier’s 1922 edition of the Chanson de Roland fits into, or derives from, ideas about nationality, Frenchness, at that time after the Franco-Prussian War in which France was defeated. Then she shows how the very idea of a stemma prioritizes ideas that can also be seen in a family tree and in ideas of purity of descent. Then she discusses feminist theory and queer theory, and perhaps her most powerful arguments are in the field of power itself especially in the light of theorists such as Foucault and Said.

These are illuminating views. One scholar had already written in 2010: “We see before us a great age [of editing] – indeed, a heroic age, one filled with triumphs and false starts, messy, destabilized and destabilizing, and above all, dynamic”. FOOTNOTE 5

FOOTNOTE 5: Greg Crane, cited in the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, page 1.

The new developments in textual scholarship and the best-text editions that can underpin them

Greetham in his foreword to a re-edition of McGann’s Critique in the 1990s put his finger on a crucial question, namely that the new developments in textual scholarship are in the realm of description and commentary and not so much in the realm of making editions, so that the question arises of how exactly these new features in textual scholarship might affect the making of editions. He writes: “And here we return to the question put aside earlier: is the scholarly editing of documents on McGannian principles feasible and what would such an edition look like?”. FOOTNOTE 6 He doesn’t answer the question but instead affirms his confidence that further investigation in the field, following McGann’s book, will certainly result in many more celebratory calypsos.

FOOTNOTE 6: Cited from the 1999 reprint of McGann’s Critique, pages xvi to xix.

And indeed right up to the present day it is editions such as mine which stand firm and provide the solid basis for exploring not only the music itself but also the new aspects in textual scholarship. You can’t usefully study the details of guitar works by Sor or the playing technique of Giuliani, for example, unless you work either from the original editions or from a rock-firm edition of the work itself, and that is likely to be a professional edition such as mine. Likewise, if you want to explore the works of those composers in the light of the new aspects in textual scholarship, you will need to base your investigations either on the original editions or on rock-firm professional editions of that music.

So I leave you, dear readers, with a view of today’s textual scholarship, messy but dynamic as we saw, with new fields of interest to be explored but still dependent on rock-firm editions to provide solid ground from which it is possible to venture forth and explore those dynamic new perspectives.

Brian Jeffery