- Manon Lescaut:La Scala 1930
I want to start polemically. To do so was apt when this article had its first outing, at a musicological conference, and for various reasons I now remain trapped in its mode, one to which I otherwise like to think myself temperamentally unsuited.1 To diminish embarrassment, to frame and distance the tone, I decided then and have decided now to banish for a brief spell the first person singular.
In 1983, then, a young British musicologist who shall be temporarily nameless, specializing in nineteenth-century Italian opera and recently domiciled in upstate New York, was offered the opportunity to assist in a significant (and, as it happens, quite lucrative) scholarly fantasy. He was invited to join with others in what Stephen Greenblatt has famously called "the dream of the master text."2 This dream has of course been spinning on for many centuries, and it will continue to spin, even when we twenty-first-century scholars have become the objects of forgetting. But back then in 1983, in the second half of the last century, the dream was at a musicological high point: encouraged by late modernism's project, it had expanded its purview and hardened its rhetoric; fueled by technological progress, it had taken on a formidable corporeality.
In those days, to be a nineteenth-century Italian opera specialist was to find oneself, quite unexpectedly, close to Dream Central. The works of Verdi and his contemporaries had long been thought ill-suited for master-text treatment, but as their institutional star rose it became clear that many of them were strikingly well-adapted to industrialized reverie. No surprise, then, that a complete critical edition of Verdi had recently been announced, one that proclaimed itself (I quote here from an advertisement on the back cover of the journal 19th-Century Music in 1982) "the only [edition] presenting authentic versions of all the composer's works." It continued by informing us of a bold (and, it proved, hopelessly unsustainable) prospectus: "this monumental edition" was "to be issued at the rate of one work each year for the next thirty years." As if to demonstrate the project's formidable authenticity and monumentality, the advertisement included a ringing endorsement from none other than the composer himself: with a touching awkwardness of English expression, Verdi (whose picture stared bleakly and accusingly at us: Lord Kitchener in that famous World War I poster did no better [End Page 93] service) was quoted as saying: "I complain bitterly of the editions of my last operas, made with such little care, and filled with an infinite number of errors."3
Our young musicologist, thus emboldened, was assigned a volume in this Gesamtausgabe; its general editor, Philip Gossett, gave him much-needed advice; he duly set to work. As it happened, and probably just as well, the opera entrusted to his care, Nabucco, turned out to be rather simple to edit, but this lack of difficulty seemed in its turn to stimulate a tremendous expenditure of labor. The editorial simplicity is easy to explain and holds for most of Verdi's early operas. Although Nabucco had been popular the world over for almost a century and a half and had during that time generated thousands of textual traces, only one of those traces was deemed to have any strong degree of authority. This one source, Verdi's autograph score, could thus assume enormous, well-nigh numinous power that could, as it were, then be elaborately worshipped and thus appropriated by the new master text. The extent of the worship was, for a work of this size and complexity, virtually unprecedented. Through a series of typographical distinctions and editorial interventions, all markings in the new master text were traceable either to the composer's autograph or to the editor. And in a book-length critical commentary (in fact, and perhaps shamefully, the longest "book" our young scholar had written to date or has written subsequently), the editor was enjoined by the series criteria to detail every conceivable aspect of the autograph. Was it, at the time, the longest critical commentary ever written to accompany a single musical work? Probably not...