Composers and their works

June 23, 2017
Ray Heigemeir
Tchaikovsky piano concerto no. 1, complete works edition

The scholarly edition of the famous Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 just landed in my lap (ouch!), which got me thinking about the impressive publications we in the music world know as “composer complete works editions,” or, “composer collected works.” These often lavish, multi-volume sets of music scores are painstakingly produced by scholars, based on all available source material, and published over time following a pre-determined order, and as the name implies, present the complete output of a particular composer. They are also referred to as critical editions, reflecting the scholarly nature of the endeavor. Extensive and detailed commentary on sources is usually included.

The set includes extensive notes in both Russian and English, and facsimiles such as the first pages of conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg's copy showing his extensive markings.

In earlier eras, a few composers such as Medieval poet/composer Guillaume de Machaut issued their own sets of complete works. The 1789 Handel edition was the first attempt by an independent scholar at issuing a composer’s works.  Modern-day publication methods were established by the Bach-Gesellschaft’s complete works of J.S. Bach (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, published between 1851-1899). The gradual publication of the set over a half century is typical and reflects the meticulousness of the preparation of the scores.

There are complete works sets available for many composers. However, not all composers have these sets, while others, such as Mozart and Handel, have older complete editions, with subsequent new editions that incorporate fresh discoveries about the works. Many composer complete works editions are in progress.

The four-volume set of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto no. 1

The four-volume set includes both the full orchestral score and the version for two pianos/four hands.

Several members of the Stanford music faculty have contributed to composer complete works, including Albert Cohen (Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre), Stephen Hinton (Kurt Weill), and Jesse Rodin (Josquin des Prez). Complete works sets may be browsed in the Music Library stacks, at the call number section M3—they are alphabetical by composer. Because many of the sets are large, and it is not unusual for them to be divided into series and subseries based on genre (all operas grouped together, for instance, followed by all piano music, etc.) individual works can be difficult to find without an index. The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians composer biographies include lists of works that reference individual volumes in the relevant complete works set. And your friendly music librarians are always on hand to help!