Disaster avoidance 101- are we all playing the same piece?

For some time, I’ve been meaning to offer up a list of pieces that pose special dangers to conductors and librarians. These are works that exist in more than one version or edition, where an incompatible set of parts can mean more than just a frustrating rehearsal such as those in which the conductor has different rehearsal letters than the orchestra. Not caught in time, failure to communicate clearly between conductor and librarian on any of these works can lead to a complete meltdown, possibly a cancellation of the entire concert. Please feel free to add your own favorites to this list.

Concertos seem to figure highly on this list- probably the legacy of egomaniacal soloists tampering with the works of the masters.

Haydn- Cello Concerto in D Major. Believe it or not, the hilariously dodgy arrangement by Gevaert is still out there (and it turns out that Servais actually made the arrangement!). No credible cellist would touch this arrangement with a ten foot pole, but when the SMP sent away for their Haydn set for Saturday’s concert from the regional orchestra lending library, they were sent the Breitkopf set of Gevaert parts. Luckily, I had my own set. We announced this at the beginning of the first rehearsal and told everyone to return their Gevaert that night, but at the final rehearsal, one chap (who was there when this was all explained) was still doggedly sawing away at Mr. Gevaerts improvement until I asked him why he kept doubling the violas.

Tchaikovsky- Rococo Variations. For a long time, this piece has only been known in the arrangement made by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the dedicatee. Tchaikovsky hated this arrangement, but grudgingly allowed it to supersede his original. The pure Tchaik version is coming back into circulation, which is great, but I have known cellists to “forget” to mention that they were doing the original, which is rental only. It’s fairly easy to get the Fitzenhagen at the 11th hour, if you’ve rented the original by mistake, but close to impossible to get a rental set sent out in the week of the concert if you didn’t know better than to get Fitzenhagen.

Tchaikovsky- Violin Concerto. Not a question of versions, but of cuts. Auer made a set of brutal and pointless cuts in the Finale, which for some reason have stayed in common usage to this day (I’ve twice conducted the cut version). The cuts are too elaborate to put in during rehearsal (putting cuts in at a rehearsal is always dangerous and slow), so if you get only one rehearsal with your soloist and they haven’t told you they want them, you are in real trouble. Most orchestras simply have two sets of this piece- one as the great man wrote it, one as butchered by Auer. Know which one you need, or, better yet, don’t hire violinists who insist on the cuts, which really are vile.


Rachmaninoff- Piano Concerto no. 1. Rach revised this piece. You might think that everyone would be doing the same, revised edition these days, but no. Last time a band near me did this they had a set of parts different from the conductor and soloist. Oops.

Rachmaninoff- Symphony no. 2. What is it with Russian Romantics? There was a long tradition of vile, hateful, gross and amateurish cuts in this piece. Conductors without the attention span to grasp Rach’s mastery of form and proportion shouldn’t conduct this piece, but if they insist on the “traditional” cuts, best to let the librarian know far in advance, and best to use a designated set rather than to deface one that will be used later as Rachy intended. Rachmaninoff “approved” those cuts the same way I” approve” a speeding ticket- when faced with something you can’t do anything about, you just shrug and say thanks.

Revisions can be a big source of confusion. With some composers, like Mahler, there seems to be a de facto preference for using the final version of everything he wrote, but not so with others. Stravinsky’s revisions of his early works were perceived largely to be done for financial reasons- for instance, the original versions of the 3 first great ballet scores (Firebird, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring) were not bringing him any royalties. With all early Stravinsky, you need to know if you’re doing the original or the revised edition. Firebird is the most complicated and dangerous of these- there is the complete ballet in its original form, then the 1911 Suite (which ends with the Infernal Dance) which is still for the same (huge) orchestra as the ballet. In 1919, Stravinsky reduced the wind/brass/percussion compliment almost by half (he had called the original orchestration “wasteful”) when he made a new Suite, which has become the most popular version of the Firebird. Chances are, if someone says “Firebird,” they mean the 1919 Suite, not the original ballet or any of the other Suites. Then, in 1945, he made yet another Suite- longer than the 1919 and with an ending more in his mature style, substituting ironic staccato chords for the more traditional grandioso ending. Although this seems to be his final intention, the 1919 Suite remains more popular. HOWEVER, even agreeing on the 1919 version (and by all means, do the others if you get the chance!), does not solve all the problems. The original publication of the 1919 Firebird Suite has the distinction of being the most error-filled publication of any piece in the standard repertoire. There are thousands and thousands of errors in that edition, and in the many 20th c. reprints (remember, a huge part of the 1919 version’s popularity has always been that it is not under copyright, and has thus been available to reprint houses). Finally, Kalmus issued a marvelous corrected edition- it’s not expensive, and it is far, far better than what used to be out there. So- if you want to do the 1919 Firebird Suite, make sure you mention 1919, lest you get the full ballet, 1911 or 1945 (your librarian and GM will not be pleased if they pay for this expensive rental, only to find you wanted 1919), and that you mention your preference for the new edition from Kalmus. There are plenty of sets of the old, crappy parts floating around- no matter how many times they’ve been used, there are bound to still be many mistakes in those parts. Burn them.

Most French repertoire suffers from similar issues. Durand and Co. must have liked their vin rouge a lot. Corrected editions of La Mer, Nocturnes and several others are now available- best to chuck the old sets and scores. Dover is not a good resource for Debussy.

Some composer’s entire outputs are fraught with questions about editions and versions, and none more so than Bruckner. There are two rival critical editions (by Haas and Nowak), both of which still have their advocates, and, even within these editions, there are often multiple legitimate versions of a symphony. It’s not enough to say you’re doing Bruckner 4- we need to know which editor, which version (the year) and then triple check to make sure that you didn’t type anything wrong. There are cataloguing systems that attempt to track all of the versions, such as the Cahis listing, but it’s probably safest (and worth the time) anytime you’re doing Bruckner to send your librarian a photocopy of your score (at least the title page and first page) just to make sure. When I did the 4th, my librarian, at my behest, sent away for Nowak 1880, and was promised, repeatedly that this was what she’d been sent. I kept telling her that if she got it from where she said she did, it wasn’t Nowak, and a 10 second comparison when I got to town turned up the proof that it was Haas, which in this case was not a big deal (I’d guessed this was what had happened and brought him and inserts to fix the horn parts in the coda).

Mahler is slightly less complicated, but getting more so. Unlike Bruckner, there seems to be a general consensus with Mahler that we should use his final versions, although I am tempted to record the original 6th if someone would ask me. The Critical Edition is an expensive rental, but well worth it for those symphonies in which Mahler made extensive changes after the last publication in his lifetime, particularly the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies, which are hugely different.  The changes in the 1st Symphony were mostly in place before his death- in this case, the Critical edition is more accurate than the Kalmus (fewer mistakes), but it’s not a different version of the piece. Likewise, pieces he didn’t have a chance to revise, like the 9th Symphony are essentially the same (again, with corrections) between the public domain reprints and the rental Critical. There are now NEW Critical editions of 5 and 2 (UPDATE- there is also a new Critical edition of the 6th)- which may mean that a conductor who has learned the piece from an old Critical Edition score is in for a surprise when the new rental version shows up.

There are some composers where the differences between old and new editions are really not that major. The Beethoven Symphonies, for instance, can be rehearsed and performed from the old Breitkopf (or Kalmus or Lucks) , Barenreiter (edited by Jonathan Del Mar), Henle (edited by Armin Raab) or Breitkopf Urtext (edited by Clive Brown and Peter Hauschild) with just about any combination of score and parts. There are, of course, many interesting differences which will become apparent in rehearsal, and the measure numbers and rehearsal letters don’t always play well together, but you are at least dealing with the same piece. Likewise for Brahms, with the new Henle edition edited by Robert Pascall or the old Breitkopf/ Hans Gal edition, or Schumann with the new Breitkopf Urtext edition or the old edition by Clara Schumann published as part of the Complete Works and reprinted  by Kalmus. By all means, use the best, most modern materials you can get, and always TRY to make sure conductor and orchestra are working from the same text, but at least you are mostly on safe footing as far as having the same piece of music to work with. The one dangerous item is Schumann’s D minor Symphony, where the 1841 version, which Schumann pointedly discarded in favor of the far better revision, is sneaking back into the repertoire. Again, I’m struck by how, for some composers, we treat their final intentions as gospel (Mahler), and with others, how we assume that the more effort they put into a work, the more they got it wrong (Schumann). In my opinion, Schumann was the best judge of his own music and we should respect his final wishes, but if you want to do the original version, make sure you’ve made that clear to the orchestra.

Haydn is a special case. Where the old Mozart parts and scores by Breitkopf are not perfect, and the NMA edition published by Barenreiter is a noticeable improvement, the old Haydn editions are mostly a gruesome distortion of what he wrote, often made by editors who simply didn’t recognize his genius. The Robbins Landon editions of the Haydn Symphonies are a huge improvement, as is the new series from Barenreiter. In both cases, it’s good to look at any and all Critical Notes. As with other scholarly editions (such as those of the Beethoven symphonies) what you see on the page is not always what even the editor thought the composer actually intended you to play, but what the composer literally wrote. This means that some obvious mistakes are left in where the sources are all in agreement. Only in the notes do you find something like “the F natural in the fourth horn, while present in all surviving sources, seems out of place with this D major triad on the final chord of the piece in D major, and is probably a mistake”). Anyway, reprints of old editions in Haydn are to be avoided. Best to agree to either Robbins Landon or Barenreiter.

Sadly, the worst offenders in Haydn are often conductors, who all too often take the cheap route and show up with dodgy Dover scores of his works.

Dover scores are a marvelous resource, and one I could write about (and have started to before getting desperately bored) at great length. Many, while not perfect, are very good- the Beethoven’s are fine, in spite of the annoying lack of numbers and letters (a frequent problem in the Dovers), as are most Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bruckner, Sibelius, Schubert and Dvorak. None are the best available source, but all are at least usable for study and performance. The Mahlers, on the other hand, up to Das Lied, are to be avoided, and are mostly useless except for basic study unless you are intentionally doing an early version of the piece (and have confirmed that your Dover score is the same version the orchestra will be seeing on their stands).

The Haydns, though, are really awful. They come from a generation who really thought Haydn needed a great deal of help, and are mostly completely corrupt. I lose a lot of respect for anyone (pace RCICW students who used one this summer in spite of our admonition not to, no hard feelings where the mistakes of youth are involved) that shows up with one to a rehearsal. In this case, it’s less a case of conductor and librarian agreeing, than of conductor not doing something stupid in the name of being cheap.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

12 comments on “Disaster avoidance 101- are we all playing the same piece?”

  1. Lawrence Yates

    Concert in the north of England – conductor sadly miscalculated the rehearsal time he had so that by the end of the afternoon there were four pieces unrehearsed. We sight-read them on the night. All went well until “The Toreador’s Song” from Carmen.

    As all fell apart in front of a thrilled audience the conductor and soloist compared editions for the first time – the only common feature was the title.

    With a cry of, “Well, shall we play something else instead” the work was abandoned and the audience, who believed it to be all part of the show, applauded for all they were worth.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Vocal music like Carmen also carries with it the question of keys, which also is an issue with the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. It was written in E Major, but is easier for some in E-flat, which to me seems lame. In any case, I have seen rehearsals where the orchestra had been rehearsing in E and the soloist showed up ready for E-flat. Good times.

  3. Matthew Saunders

    My colleague suggests that Handel’s Messiah can be treacherous, as parts from Schirmer and Novello have different rehearsal numbers and different keys in some cases.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Matthew, that’s a good one, but also a slightly different set of issues. Since there are various versions of some pieces within Messiah, one must really coordinate with the soloists, choir and orchestra so that everyone knows-

    1- Which versions of which pieces are we doing in what order
    2- Who is singing what (some performances even use 2 alto soloists, one male and one female, which makes part assignments even more complicated)

    It’s actually piece in which everyone can get confused even if they are using the same edition.

    Since all the movents tend to be short, the differences in bar numbers are less of a problem (you can always just say “from the begninnning of the B section” or something similar). However, the movement numbers are different from edition to edition. I use Barenreiter for Messiah, but the Watkins Shaw is more popular with many groups, and I’ve had to get along with those parts in the past. By now, my Barenreiter score is annotated so that I can easily announce a movement or piece in the terminology of several different editions.


  5. Allen Cohen

    Dear Maestro Woods,

    I just read a reposting of this on Orchestralist. Bravo!–not only for the list of variants, but for your defense of composers’ intentions, in the face of “well-meaning” interpreters who think they know better. I love your blog, and I look forward to hearing some of your performances.

  6. Mikko Utevsky

    Which Haydn edition would you recommend? I have the dreaded Dover for No.s 99-104, and I’m not sure whether I’d be better off printing an IMSLP score to bind at Kinko’s or trying to check every note of the Dover against something more reliable (but what? the Dover miniature is the H.C. Robbins Landon edition; is that worth getting for correcting the larger one?). I’m hoping wordpress will notify you of comments, since this is an old post.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    @Mikko Utevsky

    Hi Mikko

    Avoid Dover. Also- not all the Dover’s that claim to be Robbins Landon are. You have to check carefully. Haydn is always worth investing in either Robbins Landon or the new Barenreiter. However, you can’t combine the two- there are significant differences, in my experiences between Robbins Landon and Barenreiter, where both are available.

    Don’t use any old Breiktopf materials, Peters or other dodgy old editions.

    Hope that helps


  8. Mikko Utevsky

    @Kenneth Woods

    Yikes! I’ve gotten comfortable with Dover pricing; Universal and Barenreiter are not so kind. I will probably have to get one of them and edit the parts; I’ll see what edition Prof. Smith has in the UW library. Thanks for the advice.


  9. Mikko Utevsky

    @Mikko Utevsky
    On Smith’s recommendation, I’m getting the Barenreiter (I’ll put in the time editing the parts if I have to) – he pointed out that it tends to have a lot more editorial suggestions and tends to clearly label them as such, whereas the HMP edition omits a lot of those notes (dotted slurs, markings in brackets, etc) or doesn’t distinguish them as editorial.

  10. Kris Bowtell

    And then of course there’s the Poulenc Gloria – even in the new edition the parts, full score and vocal score disagree in dozens of places … at least there’s a comprehensive list of errata swimming around on the web! Edition Durand, lift your game!

  11. Kenneth Woods

    The French have never been known for the quality of their proofreading- with such food and wine, why spend one’s life comparing sources….

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