Issue 10: Why Don’t Composers Have Editors?

By Graham Meyer

I think it was somewhere around hour five of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg where the absence of editors in music became clear. The part of the opera that takes place in Hans Sachs's shop, at the beginning of Act 3, consists of a Sachs monologue, a tedious series of four visitors inching the plot forward, and then a glorious and too-short quintet. The public song competition that concludes the opera follows, capped by the odd paean to German art. Act 3 alone is longer than Salome.

When I turn in a piece of writing, the editor I report to has the prerogative to rework the piece substantially, more than merely cleaning up typos and jockeying punctuation around. Several times when I worked on the other side of the writer/editor divide, I changed things as large as moving the last paragraph to the beginning, choosing an ending that altered the tone readers were left with, and conducting interviews when quotes were lacking. And it's not just in journalism that editors wield great influence over the finished product. Letters and early drafts have revealed the extent to which Raymond Carver's pared-down, allusive style was a product of draconian cuts by his editor, Gordon Lish, and Maxwell Perkins found the wheat in pages and pages of chaff Thomas Wolfe wrote for Look Homeward, Angel. Those not involved in professional writing are usually surprised to hear that when a writer and an editor disagree, the editor makes the final decision.

How I wished, shifting in my seat to prevent my legs from falling asleep, that Richard Wagner could have had someone to tell him, as his characters sing unironically about a great song that...

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