Creating a vocal edition

A couple of weeks ago, I embarked on another research trip down in London to find editions of The Songs Sung by Mrs Billington and since returning I have been working away setting them into modern notation. 

When creating an edition there are number of things to consider. On the one hand, I want to notate what is in the original score as accurately as possible, while still creating a usable modern, performance edition that is consistent in style and setting throughout. I am mainly working from 18th-century prints and while I expected there to be inconsistencies between multiple versions there are also a number of other consideration I hadn’t quite anticipated. 

This is a vocal, operatic print and while I had anticipated spelling descrepencies the biggest issue has been grammatical and punctuation inconsistencies. This may seem like an easy issue to solve: either make the lyrics grammatically correct stating editorial changes or notate what was originally written in the score. However, these scores were not the only items in circulation that can give a clue to grammatical intention. Operatic libretti were publicly on sale prior to the performance, and were one of the most common ‘keep sakes’ from an opera performance. Presumably, audience members could read along with the libretto during the performance or read along later when they returned home.

What is the point of having a score that is grammatically correct? Surely, any singer wouldn’t need to focus on this and can match word to note easily no matter the grammatical intention. Unfortunately, when looking at 18th-century text, one needs to be much more accurate with the grammar and punctuation to ensure the drama. Robert Toft in his book Bel Canto A Performer’s Guide noted the importance of rhetoric in operatic entertainment. Gesture was used to enphasis rhetorical meaning, but I would go further to suggest the grammar and punctuation determined appropriate ornamentation and affect within the aria. 

For example, in Billington’s ‘By him we love offended’ the phrase “be hold him, and it dies!” is repeated several times within the chorus. The fact that it is repeated is a sign of dramaticism but it is further intensified with a ! and Billington ornaments the phrase differently each time. Furthermore, correctly placing commas would reveal many more gaps in the phrase where ornamentation and breaths can be taken without interrupting the lyrical meaning. 

In the score there is only occasional glimpses of the grammar and punctuation seen in the libretto. This could be because the correct grammar and punctuation was universally understood and therefore, deemed unnecessary in the score publication. This could be why in the first chorus, grammar and punctuation is included in each sentence, but when it repeats, the grammar and punctuation is removed – the expectation being that the singer refers to the grammar and punctuation of the first time through. 

This may have been a commonly known and accepted custom for the original buyers, but for today’s singer, consistency in grammar and punctuation throughout the song is an absolutely must, particularly in emphasising the importance of rhetorical expression when singing the text. It may create even more work for me in creating the edition, but the original historical sources are providing much more information about performance practice conventions in singing this material and is demonstrating how different the education system has become. Grammar and punctuation is now a complex subject that plagues 21st-century students who may have fallen victim to fads in primary teaching over the last 50 years. It can no longer be universally accepted that everyone understands grammatical intention but to effectively sing 18th century repertoire, it is a necessity!


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