Transcriptions, Editions and Arrangements

Conductors must be able to recognise that printed musical works can be presented in many diverse ways. Modern literature, whether for choir, band, or orchestra, is mostly published without any changes introduced by publishers. On the other hand, nearly all of the older repertoire is available in newer publications which have had some editorial intervention. They might range from Facsimile or Urtext editions to simplified arrangements meant to be used in educational contexts. It is necessary for conductors to understand the distinctions between them so that they will be able to choose literature correctly for specific reasons such as the ability of an ensemble.

The following discussion pertains to works that have been edited in some fashion to facilitate performances by various ensembles. It is important to understand the differences between the terms “transcription,” “edition,” and “arrangement.” This information is usually included somewhere in the score, either on the title page or on the first page. Under the name of the composer, it may mention something like, “Edited by…” or “Arranged by…”.

Editions are works that are essentially the same as the original version, but have been enhanced with editorial suggestions that may range from minor corrections of misprints to more substantial changes such as articulation, and the addition or deletion of notes. The structure of the composition usually isn’t changed (unless for error correction or to return the work to a previous state: Mozart’s Requiem is an example of this), but an editor has attempted to assist in a more accurate representation of the work by inserting recommendations designed to produce a more truthful, updated, or accessible performance. An editor might also include suggested changes of instruments that are not readily available for modern groups, such as alternatives for ophicleide or serpent.

There are mainly four types of editions: facsimile, urtext, performance and critical. 

A facsimile edition presents a photographic reproduction of a composer’s or copyist’s manuscript or of a historical published version of a piece. These are not normally used for performance, though sometimes by for example “HIP ensembles”, but are useful for historical and contextual research.

Urtext (i.e., “original text”) were initially a faithful engraving from a primary source of the music into modern notation; no alterations were made to the music, the edition was just a way for the work to be much easier to read and learn. This concept has changed over time and Urtext editions have veered towards the notion of critical editions recently.

Performance editions present the musical works in a manner that an editor believes will facilitate a performer’s learning process, add expressive features to a piece, simplify notation, or clarify technical execution. Performance editions can, in extreme cases, significantly alter some important aspects of the performance of a work and should only be used by one who is aware of these limitations. Often, in some of these editions, no indication is given in the score as to the source of the music or whether an expressive or a technical marking originates from the composer or the editor. Sometimes, pitches, articulations, and other elements are changed without notice. These types of editions can be problematic because they may include alterations that reflect an editor’s style and opinion instead of the composer’s intentions. However, when crafted by responsible editors and publishers, such revisions are not troublesome or confusing. High-quality performance editions identify their sources and indicate when revisions are editorial. Some even include facsimile or urtext versions as well as explanations that allow performers to assess an editor’s changes and then make their own decisions. When a performance edition is to be used, a diligent conductor would do well to check the editions they use against urtexts or facsimiles.

Critical editions, also called scholarly editions, are often preferred since they reflect the most accurate rendering of particular scores. They are based on scholarly evaluation and collation of sources, with considerations of variant readings and innumerable aspects of contemporary performance practice. New variations of urtext editions, sometimes labelled as “new urtext edition” or “revised urtext edition” also fall into this category. Examples of these include the “New Berlioz Edition” or the “New Schubert Edition” by Bärenreiter, or the publications labelled “Wiener Urtext Edition”. Critical editions are accompanied by extensive analytical and contextual notes designed to clarify the editor’s choices and sometimes leave options for decisions to be made by the performer. Critical editions should generate critical users with both performers and editors assuming new responsibilities, continuously generating new interpretations and editions.


A transcription is a piece that has been rescored for a different instrumentation from that which it was originally composed for. Some transcriptions are conceived primarily for educational purposes, but others have found a way into mainstream repertoire due to their quality. Works such as Ravel’s orchestration of the piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov’s transcription of A night on bare mountain, Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or Elgar’s of the C minor Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 537) are typical of this type.. Transcriptions are not simplified from the original in any way. In the wind band world, transcriptions have been a part of the repertoire tradition since the harmoniemusik of the 18th century with some extraordinary examples of these having been produced over the years. 


Versions are very specific types of transcriptions, or in rare cases arrangements. The main difference between a traditional transcription and a version is that the latter is done by the composers themselves, by someone under their supervision or at their explicit intention. Although originally written for band, the orchestral setting of Milhaud’s Suite Française was a version done by the composer himself; the orchestral version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was prepared by Ferde Grofé from the original score for Paul Whitman’s dance orchestra. Some versions that might be considered arrangements are concert versions of ballet music or opera that were adapted to be performed in a concert setting without the choreography or acting. In this case, while some adjustments to the orchestration may occur, the most obvious change is in the form of the works, with sections being eliminated or rewritten for the concert version. One of such examples is The Firebird by Stravinsky which is usually heard in the concert hall as an abridged suite version of the complete ballet music. The other type of versions the conductor needs to be aware of is the subsequent revisions a composer does to his music after it has been initially published. Composers often revise their works years after having published them to incorporate new ideas and the range of these revisions can span from minor additions or elisions of a few measures to drastic changes in, for example, form, orchestration, or meter. It is essential to be aware of this when studying a new work to make sure that the score being studied matches the version the ensemble expects to play!

Whereas transcriptions and editions normally do not change the notes or structure of the work in substantial ways, arrangements often do alter the basic form, musical structure, or instrumentation of a work. Arrangements sometimes seek only to simplify certain passages of an original work to reduce the difficulty, allowing performances by amateur groups or student ensembles without significantly changing the structure of the music. Another type of arrangement includes those that totally transform a piece by presenting merely excerpts. They often have titles like Themes from Symphony No. 1 or are subtitled as an “abridged version”. The only similarity to the original is the use of the same melodies, and such arrangements can be considered entirely new compositions of their own.

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