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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In the last few years, a music-publishing industry that historically has resolutely ignored compositions by composers of color and women has released more editions of music by composers of color and women than they've ever before shown any interest in publishing.

Make no mistake: the system of music publishing still gives decided preference to music by dead White men, especially European ones, and especially those whose music is already in the Public Domain. It has undertaken this comparatively small, but real and important, corrective step only because publishers (especially large firms) sensed potential profit in such a step. Big music publishers saw in it an opportunity to make a bunch of money. If the venture had not offered a profit, publishers wouldn’t have undertaken it.

It's fortunate that they have -- but every silver lining has its cloud. In this case, that cloud is the presence of misprints and other errors in these editions of previously ignored music by composers of color and women.

That’s the occasion that prompted a recent article by Douglas Shadle in the Winter 2022 issue of American Music (“Capitalism and the Future of American Classical Music Scholarship”) and an article by Elena Urioste and Tom Poster in Classical Music (“Why Are the Scores of Underrepresented Composers Riddled with Mistakes?”).

The prompt or occasion for those two articles is important (mistakes impede respectful performance and scholarly interpretation of underrepresented composers’ works), and the authors’ conclusions about the contaminating influence of capitalism and a disrespect for underrepresented composers’ work that would never be inflicted on canonical composers are valid.

But both articles seem oblivious to two underlying issues that must be addressed if the problem of these mistakes is ever to be fixed:

(1) The false assumption that anyone who can read music can produce a responsible edition, without any knowledge of philology, stemmatics, paleography, or other forensically centered scholarly disciplines; and

(2) The intersection of the law of averages and simple human error – an issue that has been producing mistakes in countless music manuscripts, and other documents, since the beginnings of musical notation and writing in general. Composers – say, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price – are subject to this intersection. So are editors; so are the corrective voices who tendered the two pieces mentioned above; and so is every other writer.

The good news for conciliatory spirits who are in this for understanding and improving our musical world, rather than turf, is that these two underlying issues offer common ground between the seemingly oppositional forces that made these recent writings necessary and important.

Let me explain:

(1) The assumption that anyone who can read music can produce a responsible edition, without any knowledge of philology, stemmatics, or other forensically centered scholarly disciplines. This false assumption has publishers using in-house editors (already on the payroll and in the budget) who are not necessarily qualified to understand the sources of music (“sources” defined as the manuscripts and, as available, printed editions that provide the basis of any new edition) simply inputting, in modern typesetting, the notes on the pages as inputters see them, occasionally altering what they consider an obvious mistake or omission in those sources.

But manuscript notation is an extraordinarily nuanced form of notation, and translating it into the regularized, tidy stuff that performers like to use is often awkward. More importantly, composers are human; they make mistakes, and they often change their minds — and when they do, they usually end up producing new manuscripts that supersede the earlier ones. The first task of any editor, therefore, is not to select a manuscript and input into something that any performer can sing or play without any understanding of the sources. Rather, it is to develop a stemma— a chronological family tree of autographs and other manuscripts and editions — that firmly establishes which source(s) best represent the composer’s latest intentions (“latest” because writing out a new manuscript is a lot of work, not undertaken lightly: when composers write out new manuscripts, they generally do so because the later manuscripts correct errors in earlier ones or incorporate rethinkings that couldn’t be entered into the earlier manuscripts efficiently or clearly). Only after this philological understanding has been undertaken can anyone understand a given work’s musical sources sufficiently to produce a reliable edition.

Price’s Piano Quintet in A Minor (discussed in Urioste’s and Poster’s piece) is a good example because this particular work represents one of the thorniest source-situations in Price’s entire output. That complex source-situation accounts for many, if not most, of the problems that have bedeviled editions of this work ever since its first publication by Lia Jensen-Abbott back in 2001, and continue to do so today.

Urioste and Poster refer to “Price’s original manuscript” (singular), “Price’s own autograph” (singular), and “the full score” (singular). But which source(s) are they referring to? For this particular work the surviving sources include two complete autograph scores that diverge from one another in numerous ways, plus another incomplete autograph score, plus three sets of autograph parts that are not entirely consistent with any of the scores. All of these sources are “Price’s original” and “Price’s own,” and because they’re all in Price’s hand, they’re all “authoritative” (vested with her authority). Without first completing a solid stemma that also accounts for the ways in which the conflicting autograph parts concur with and depart from each of the autograph scores, and correlating those parts and scores with a performance chronology that would help to ascertain the chronological authority of all six of those (surviving) autograph sources, any edition is a hit-or-miss hodgepodge that risks conflating rejected and authoritative readings into a new version of the work that would, in all likelihood, baffle or irk the composer who had gone to all the trouble of writing out those new manuscripts.

To that situation must be added the possibility (or maybe probability) of lost or missing sources. We all know the story of the manuscripts that lay abandoned in that house in St. Anne and were found there in terrible disarray. How confident can we be that over those decades of neglect some manuscripts or partial manuscripts didn’t get lost or destroyed? Or that some now-lost source wouldn’t explain and resolve the incongruencies among the various autograph scores and parts?

The scholarly approach to such conundrums is not just to produce a typeset / input version of the notes from the manuscript(s), but also to identify all the sources used and all editorial judgment calls made when the sources contained errors or conflicted with one another. This critical apparatus empowers performers to understand what they’re playing and, if something doesn’t seem right, to make a change that is based on what Florence Price wrote rather than their own guesswork. But performers need to use the critical apparatus, or we’re back at Square One.

Sorting all this out is a complex task. The musical world’s long-overdue rush to acknowledge the genius of Florence Price without a sound mastery of the philology that’s needed to do this right is not a solution to the problem, but an end-run around the solution. It has already produced some major “works” whose problems dwarf those mentioned in the corrective writings cited above. The task is not something that anyone who can read music can take on responsibly. Yet that is all that’s been done to date in the case of Florence Price’s extraordinary A-minor Piano Quintet. So that work has yet to be published in authoritative form.

(2) The intersection of the law of averages and simple human error. Perhaps this is why Urioste and Poster refer to manuscript, autograph, and score in the singular rather than plural, and perhaps it’s why Shadle uses the popular but incorrect Song [singular] to the Dark Virgin[1]: perhaps these mistakes are simple verbal misprints — typos akin to the dropped accidentals so common in the new editions that prompted these writings. Urioste and Poster rightly point out that “Price’s own autograph [But which one?] undoubtedly contains some of the composer’s own mistakes,” possibly resulting from haste or the simple difficulty of creating a precise, error-free musical text when faced with the task of notating tens of thousands of individual notes, rhythms, articulations, expressive and dynamic notations, etc. Similarly, perhaps the references to the Quintet’s sources in the singular and Shadle’s use of an incorrect singular for the title of one of Price’s best-loved songs are simple human error. If so, then those mistakes in these writings are understandable: Urioste, Poster, and Shadle all typed and published thousands of characters, and the law of averages caught them. Hence the confusing terms and errors.

But by the same token, we ought to acknowledge that what Shadle sympathetically calls “the Schirmer editors pressured to create workable editions as quickly and cheaply as possible” were subject to that same risk-laden intersection of the law of averages and simple human error. The pressure of the marketplace and the commercial, perhaps mercenary, motives of the publishers further stacked the odds against them, compounding the risks of the complexities of the works’ source-situations.

None of this in itself corrects the errors in these editions that publishers have released at least as much out of commercial opportunism as out of principle, of course. But since, as Shadle points out, Price’s music passes into the Public Domain on January 1, 2024, if musicians will undertake the necessary scholarly legwork to develop philologically sound understandings of the source-situations of Price’s music – both the ones that are currently available in print and the many more that still exist only in manuscript – then it will be possible, remarkably soon, for better editions to supersede the flawed ones currently in circulation. But I cannot emphasize enough that those editions will truly be “better” only if they’re based in scholarly method rather than guesswork. And the results of using those better editions will be better only if performers and other interpreters do their own due diligence in understanding the editorial process, as reflected in the critical apparatus of the better editions. The “growing coterie of conductors and librarians” circulating subterranean errata lists is no solution, because we cannot know the authority of those conductors and librarians, nor are their understandings of the works’ source-situations and other philological challenges necessarily error-free. This is why source-critical editions name their editors: so that questions don’t have to be directed to an anonymous void in a huge publisher, but rather can be sent to the editors. It’s not about credit to the editor, not at all. It’s about facilitating collaboration between producer/editor and consumer (performer/interpreter).

I’ll close with a personal point: although Shadle specifically pointed his finger only at the large-ensemble editions, most of them rental, of Price’s music that offered Schirmer the highest profit margin and were thus most susceptible to the corrupting influences of marketplace-driven capitalism, he might also have pointed a finger at me. I’ve produced and published seventy editions of sixty discrete works of Florence Price, most of them otherwise unpublished, in recent years. And despite hard work, abundant good will, and countless hours of proofreading, correcting, and proofreading and correcting again, there are still some errors (about twelve wrong notes -- much fewer than might be expected, given those millions of notes and the law of averages, and far fewer than in the ghost-edited scores that prompted the corrective articles mentioned above — but errors nevertheless, and ones that pain me). Despite all that, there are still other things that, while not errors or misprints in the strict sense of the words, I’d do differently now. The intersection of the law of averages and simple human error in producing those tens of millions of notes and other musical notations ensnared me, too — just as it has countless scribes, editors, and publishers since the beginnings of notated Western music in the ninth century. (Please note also that I’m not one of those “Schirmer editors”; I don’t work for Schirmer and am not part of their machine. I produced my editions independently, because I wanted to learn more of Price’s music and eventually make more of it available to more people. When Schirmer heard about my work, they approached me about publishing them, for pennies, I might add.)

So if you have a beef about something in one of my editions, join with the others who’ve already written to me already and reach out. If you have a question about something in anyone else’s edition, check the critical apparatus (if there is one).

And if there’s not a critical apparatus, then do the legwork of developing at least a rudimentary understanding of philological techniques for figuring these things out, then go to the archives if at all possible (even the best digital reproductions of sources are no substitute for in situ examination of those sources!), then take advantage of Florence Price Public Domain Day (January 1, 2024) to address the problem by expanding the availability of Price’s music in reliable new editions. This is precisely how the publishers of – for example – the new editions of music by J. S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Robert Schumann, and others have undone the damage created by the philologically un-sound early editions of those composers’ works that were produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Sidenote: it’s indicative of the persistent sexism and racism of the music-publishing industry’s capitalistic motivation that women and composers of color have been all but completely excluded from those revised source-critical editions. And it's indicative of the unwitting collusion of performers that Dover editions and the many uncritical editions in the Petrucci Music Library continue to be so widely used, despite their obvious susceptibility to problems born of uncritical use of sources, etc..)

The musical world will be so much the better for your collaboration in helping to better the body of published works by Price and performances and recordings of those works.


[1] Price’s title, as represented in both of the autographs (University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, MC 988b, Box 4C, folder 25 and University of Pennsylvania, Marian Anderson Collection of Music Manuscripts Ms. Coll. 199, folder 1431) and the first edition proofed and published under Price’s own supervision, is Songs [plural] to the Dark Virgin. That’s not a misprint on her part. Even though she had no compunctions about retitling a poem when she set it as a song — for example, Hughes’s “Prayer,” which she retitled “Bewilderment” — she used Songs rather than “Song” here because that’s what Hughes himself wrote and Price herself evidently agreed with him. There’s a poetry of its own sort to that plural — for evidently Hughes considered each of the poem’s three strophes to be one “song,” and Price understood the poem the same way. So using the popular and understandable “songs” obscures that more subtle poetry that Hughes created and Price composed.


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