The Changing Role of Music Editors in Classical Music

The role of the music editor in classical music, and expectations of their work, has clearly changed over time quite significantly.

By Sarah Freiberg | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine

I started thinking about the significance of music editors when I grabbed a copy of cello studies by Jean-Louis Duport (1749–1819) to work on while on vacation recently. As I started to play the first étude, I was stunned by how much it diverged from what I remembered of the much-loved copy I had inherited from a teacher. My vacation copy sported a shocking number of additions, particularly of dynamics, emotive marks, a few note and fingering changes, and lots and lots of slurs that, to me, changed the point of the study—which is to play double-stops smoothly with separate bows. 

The title page held a clue.

The studies were “revised” by Friedrich Grützmacher and edited by Pierre Fournier. Revisions can often stray far from original works, and Grützmacher, a 19th-century cellist-composer, was famous (or, to modern eyes, infamous) for his. Though editorial “improvements” were common practice in his time, Grützmacher could take it to the extreme.

I tend to presume that if something is printed, it is what the composer intended, but, in fact, this is rarely the case. While music printing began in the 1500s, many works circulated in manuscript form well into the 18th century. Famously, Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violinand his Suites for solo cello remained in manuscript form for close to a century before initial publication. Music printed in the Baroque era is famous for its scarcity of markings, particularly dynamics and fingerings. Later performers wanted more information, which 19th-century editors willingly provided—sometimes with a vengeance. And still later, beginning in the 20th century, editors tried to strip away some of the 19th-century additions to try and get back to the original. With multiple editions available of some works with varying degrees of editorial intervention, it is important to understand what you’re looking at (and what you’re looking for) before making your choice.

There are different types of editions that you can choose from, and each can be immensely helpful to a performer. To get as close to the source as possible, you may want to pick a facsimile. This is a reproduction of the earliest manuscript—either in the hand of the composer or copyist, or of the first publication. Not everyone wants to read from manuscripts or early editions, which often use different notation and clefs that take getting used to. 

And they may have errors. 


I edited Francesco Guerini cello sonatas for the Broude Trust’s “Critical Facsimiles” series, in which errors by either composer or publisher were painstakingly corrected. If an accidental had clearly been left out, or a note was obviously a mistaken pitch, I would let the publisher know, and the correct pitch would be found elsewhere in the manuscript, photographed, and inserted seamlessly in the proper place. The corrections were all listed at the end of the volume. I admit to having mixed feelings about altering a piece of history, but the advantage is that now performers needn’t stumble across mistakes and figure out how to fix them.

As the 19th century progressed, editorial enthusiasm to improve and update music continued unabated.

When the Bach Cello Suites received their first publications in Paris in the 1820s, over 100 years after Bach penned them, they were renamed “Sonatas (or Solos).” Heavily edited with tempo markings and dynamics, essentially they were updated for the cellists likely to buy them. There was not another edition until 1866, when Grützmacher tried his hand at it. He’s now remembered for “updating and improving” a Boccherini cello concerto to make it more palatable for the Romantic era, and he did something similar for the cello suites. He thought his revisions would allow hopelessly old-fashioned, otherwise forgotten works to remain in the repertoire—and his Boccherini edition is still performed today. 

Grützmacher’s “performer’s edition” of the Bach Cello Suites is so heavily edited, arranged, and re-harmonized that it is listed under arrangements and transcriptions on the IMSLP website. His objective, as quoted in Bradley James Knobel’s 2006 dissertation on the suites, was “to reflect and to determine what these masters (Schumann and Mendelssohn) might have been thinking, and to set down all they, themselves, could have indicated.” As to Bach, Grützmacher pointed to successful performances of his own edition: “Something that would have been impossible with the bare original in its primitive state.”

This represents another type of edition, one in which an editor—who is often a performer—shares expertise and knowledge of a work to guide the musicians and performers who use it. And those fingerings, bowings, and dynamic markings are often welcome additions for students, teachers, and professional and amateur players alike. As one of my colleagues once remarked: “They put in the markings you think ought to be there.” 

However, a performer’s edition can also wander far from the source. Recently, a student brought in a newly purchased edition of the Bach Cello Suites, and I had to inform her that the bowings were totally fabricated from the very first measure of the first suite, having nothing to do with any of the manuscripts or early editions. The Cello Suites have their own tortured history, as Bach’s autograph manuscript is missing—and there have been over 100 editions since 1824.


As the 19th century progressed, editorial enthusiasm to improve and update music continued unabated. This resulted in a movement to peel away those added layers by examining the earliest musical sources. In the first half of the 20th century, publishers such as Edition Peters, G. Henle Verlag, and Bärenreiter began to look to the earliest musical text, or in German, the urtext of a work, to get closer to the composer’s original intent. This process often involves scholarly research, meticulous study of a source—or in some cases many sources—and often a good bit of detective work. The results usually include extensive critical commentary.

Friedrich Wilhelm Grützmacher portrait
Friedrich Wilhelm Grützmacher, portrait: Bergen Public Library, Norway

Editors, such as Douglas Woodfull-Harris at Bärenreiter and Peter Jost at Henle, often spend years working on one publication. Markings have changed over the years, and scholar-editors need to know how to interpret them for players to use. And the works they study may be much more contemporary than you might think. Both Woodfull-Harris and Jost edit works by late-19th- and early 20th-century composers such as Dvořák, Debussy, and Ravel. As Woodfull-Harris related to Laurie Niles in an interview on, he discovered that a mark in Debussy’s cello sonata of a zero (0), which to us means to play an open string, actually meant a left-hand pizzicato to Debussy—a small point with great significance to performers.

Urtext editions have evolved over time. Henle’s earlier urtext editions would have a scholar check all the markings with available sources, noting discrepancies and marking suggested slurs with dotted lines. But Henle would also ask a performer to add fingerings and bowings—which could be at odds with the scholarship on the page. Publishers understand that the music they produce needs to appeal to and be helpful to their buyers—and many players value fingering and bowing suggestions. But other performers may be more interested in historical accuracy, and don’t relish anachronistic markings.

Henle’s solution nowadays is to provide two versions of a work—one with fingerings and bowings, another without—both with thoughtful page turns. 


Scholarship continues to alter how we approach earlier music.

Bärenreiter’s work continues to evolve as well—as shown by their many Bach Cello Suites editions. More sources have come to light since their first, edited by August Wenzinger, first published in 1950. It contains critical commentary as well as fingerings, and is still popular today. Twenty years ago, Woodfull-Harris and Bettina Schwemer presented a “scholarly-critical performing edition,” including facsimiles of all four known manuscripts, the first printed edition, and their own rendering, which shows all the variations among those five sources. The most recent, edited by Andrew Talle, is based on the newest scholarship. Talle has also edited the synoptic facsimile volume, which lines up all four manuscripts and the first edition measure by measure—invaluable for curious cellists.

Scholarship continues to alter how we approach earlier music. Bärenreiter’s urtext publications of the two Brahms cello sonatas represents a fascinating twist in the editing process. Overall editor Clive Brown offers comprehensive and intriguing performance-practice commentary, noting that portamento was much more frequently used by string players during Brahms’ time, meaning that fingerings encouraging slides were much more popular than they are now. In one of two cello parts, cellist Kate Bennett Wadsworth has added fingerings and bowings based on the markings of cellists who performed with the composer, favoring just such slides. The other cello part is without fingerings. 

In early Henle urtext pieces, fingerings and bowings, while not based on sources, were thought to be useful to modern performers. Bennett Wadsworth’s fingerings in Brahms represent the most recent scholarship and may be quite foreign to how we play today. Interestingly, Bennett Wadsworth’s thesis is on Friedrich Grützmacher’s performing editions, and how they help inform the music of his time, including the works of Brahms. 

The role of the editor, and expectations of their work, has clearly changed over time quite significantly. In the 19th century, someone like Grützmacher was updating music to make it relevant to his generation of cellists. Mostly nowadays, we make him out to be the bad guy for altering earlier music so much that it becomes more fantasy than reality. However, most performers, particularly students and amateurs, want guidance from an edition, and 18th-century works have little to go on—few slurs, fewer dynamics, no fingerings. Grützmacher may have been a bit overenthusiastic, but his methods weren’t unusual for his time. Fortunately, modern editions seem driven by far more thorough scholarship, especially in the case of urtext editions, and even those that are performer-driven keep an eye to the composer’s intentions. And sometimes the lucky string player gets both!