Musica Britannica title


In 1951 the founding Editorial Committee of Musica Britannica planned no more than ten volumes, to contain work that was already available or known to be in progress. There duly appeared two source-editions (Mulliner and Eton), two masques, one complete ‘genre’ (the medieval carols), one anthology (of Jacobean consort music), one complete composer (Dunstable), and part of the output of three others: Dowland (ayres), Tomkins (keyboard music) and Blow (anthems). None of these contains any music composed after 1750, but in other respects they are remarkable for their randomness. It is perhaps a tribute to the richness and variety of our musical heritage that the committee was able for a long time to continue this policy of accepting (sometimes rejecting) what was offered.

Although a single master plan is impracticable, certain guiding principles have operated from the start. For example, publishing a source works well if, like Eton, its contents have relatively few concordances. But the so-called ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’ (to cite a well-known one) has considerably more, and many of them provide better readings — especially of William Byrd.

Volume 27

One early decision, therefore, was to publish the keyboard music of each of its major composers individually. This plan also had the merit of collecting, in two volumes apiece, the work of both Byrd and Bull, surely the two greatest keyboard composers that these islands have produced. But a potential disadvantage is that, when major figures are creamed off in this way, many repertories (such as the keyboard music of Purcell’s lifetime) will leave a ‘residue’ of music — some of it anonymous, but none the worse for that — which may be difficult to cater for.

Anthologies, too, need careful thought. In 1955 Jacobean Consort Music gave a valuable and welcome insight into a rich and little-known repertory, but since then its contents have been largely superseded by editions of the consort music of individual composers, under both our own and other imprints. Similarly the Select Consort Music of William Lawes (MB21) revealed a highly imaginative composer of string ensemble music, who now obviously merits fully comprehensive treatment. The future growth of the series will therefore demand a careful choice of interlocking building blocks: of units which will permit our successors and other publishers gradually to assemble a reasonably complete coverage of the most worthwhile music. This need not rule out anthologies of those more popular and plentiful repertories which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which compel some sort of selection. A volume of parish church psalmody has been published (MB85), and we may yet see an assortment of song and dance from the London pleasure gardens.

But what is an anthology — of Victorian song, for instance? Does one indeed allow an editor to select what he or she conceives to be the best, or look for a balanced cross-section of quality as well as song-type? The series has always contained a brief statement of its aims: until MB64 it proclaimed itself as both ‘an authoritative ... collection of the classics of British music’ and also a ‘truly representative survey’. The word ‘classics’, whatever it may mean, has since been dropped; but ‘representative’ the series will remain. John Eccles’s Semele and Boyce’s Solomon are fine and remarkable works. Shield’s Rosina of 1782 is scarcely that, but it does provide an early example of the extremely popular ‘dialogue’ or ‘ballad’ opera, and one of the very few for which either full score or orchestral parts survive.

Up to 2001 we had no orchestrally based works composed later than the Field concertos in MB17, apart from a motet by Samuel Wesley and two anthems by his son. But in our fiftieth anniversary year we published our first post-Baroque symphony, Cipriani Potter’s in G minor (1832), the editing of which was begun by the principal founder of the series, the late Sir Anthony Lewis, and completed by Julian Rushton, the present Chairman. That is reasonably economical in scale, but the sheer bulk of some works can be a problem: Rosina comfortably fits one volume, but two could well be needed for a full-length oratorio or opera.

In respect of editorial policy, Musica Britannica proclaims as its chief purpose ‘an accurate and scholarly presentation of original texts’, adding that ‘it is also intended to provide a basis for practical performance.’ Although the word is not used, it was planned from the outset as an edition of early music, in modern notation. There is sometimes pressure from editors to retain original notation, which in practice means eliminating modern forms that were not known to the composer, and encouraging modern musicians to learn those that were. But in many fundamental respects one cannot do this. As early as the thirteenth century, when long-note tenors made score notation impractical, scribes began the habit of notating voice-parts separately, at first in different positions on the page, later in separate books. This remained the norm for some 400 years: for instance, the eight-part motets of Peter Philips (MB61) exist only in eight separate partbooks, plus a skeletal organ part. But a modern edition intended for study and reference must clearly be printed in score, which in turn means adding barlines (or at least some indication of ‘measure’), and must surely use modern clefs. Likewise early mensuration signs, ‘coloration’ and ligatures still need to be converted to modern forms, at least until they are more widely understood.

In other matters, and where it has seemed appropriate, Musica Britannica has indeed responded to changing attitudes and preferences of performers. In the 1950s it seemed entirely natural to print Dunstable and the Eton Choirbook in quartered note values. (Even today, most singers and many scholars would concede that the rhythmic intricacies of Eton are easier to grasp if they have 12 semiquavers in a 3/4 bar, rather than 12 crotchets in 3/1.) Likewise it seemed quite normal to modernise spelling of the medieval carols, to print Dowland’s partsongs without their lute tablature, to present tenor viol parts in an octave-G clef, and to provide Arne’s Comus with a fully written-out keyboard continuo part. But only once (in MB23) has the Editorial Committee yielded to pressure to transpose early church music to what is thought to have been its performing pitch, and it is unlikely to do so again. The composer's notational grid — what has been called his ‘lattice’ of staves, clefs and key-signatures — is so integral to all his training and thought processes that any transposition on the printed page becomes an unacceptable distortion. In any case, the day cannot be far off when publishers will routinely hold performing material in electronic form, and their customers will likewise order it and pay for it electronically, stipulating any transposition they want.

Musica Britannica has changed its appearance over fifty years, externally and most obviously in the adoption of cloth-board binding and a new front cover designed by Jeremy Maddison. Internally, the hot-metal type used for the letterpress of the first 57 volumes was thereafter suddenly no longer available, and has been replaced by a computer-set font. Remarkably, metal-plate engraving of the music survived as late as MB61, but has now given way entirely to computer processing, with the advantage that performing parts for consort and orchestral music can be originated from the same files. As the main volumes become progressively more faithful to their source material, the committee and publisher are the more determined to provide performing material whenever it is feasable to do so.

Paul Doe, General Editor (1987–2001)