Vital variations

January 5, 2012

I was disappointed to read dismissive comments about the Chopin Online Variorum Edition in the feature "Surfdom" (8 December). Both those interested in musical editing and practical musicians performing the works of Frédéric Chopin, and there are many, find John Rink's database an invaluable tool.

To call the composer's editorial work with his own compositions "tinkering" is inaccurate. The Chopin sources present a morass of problems, deriving from an unfortunate European system of copyright during the first half of the 19th century: until now we have had different editions of Chopin's music in different countries. To refer to these as involving variants "so small as to be inaudible" ignores often fundamental differences between one version and another that are crucial to an understanding or a performance of a composition.

I have recently been working with a popular mazurka, published posthumously (Op. 67, No. 4). The textual history of this piece is so convoluted that the old Polish edition of the works of Chopin printed three versions of it, and a fourth was recently edited and performed from the Livre d'or of Charlotte de Rothschild. This is not only different from the others but also in many respects superior. Only through the kind of work Rink and his team are accomplishing could we hope to have such information in a single database.

The aim, finally, of course, is to make it possible for performers to make their own decisions about what to play, based on as complete a picture as scholars can make available to them. Only through Rink's labours could we hope to have materials so easily accessible. Their interest extends to every performer of this repertory, and hence every listener, even those who may not understand intimately the language of music.

At the University of Chicago we have posted online one of the great collections of Chopin printed editions (the George Platzman collection), but it does not feature manuscripts. Rink's work features every source, manuscript or printed, of the Chopin canon. I do not judge the quality of a project purely by the number of hits it may get on the web or by its appeal to the public. The works of Chopin are part of our intellectual and musical heritage. All glory to Rink's path-breaking work and to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for making it possible.

Philip Gossett, University of Chicago

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