We are accustomed to thinking of manuscripts as unique objects, each one fashioned independently of virtually all others, from the initial stage of collecting the music to be copied through to the moment at which it is complete and passes from the copyist to some other person for use. We assume this, and with it a set of implications, namely that no manuscript can be identical to any other, in at least one of the following respects--contents and their arrangement, identity of the copyist and time of copying, writing surface, or intended purpose and destination: behind these is the paramount assumption, that each manuscript represents an unique set of actions and intentions. However, that is often not the case: there are instances where a manuscript was clearly copied as one of a series of copies of the same composition, made at the same time, and each for sale on the same terms. As such, the set of copies corresponds, as a group, to the series of copies in a printed-and-published edition. (2) Each manuscript carries specific evidence of having been conceived as one of a set, (3) and has features which separate it from other types of manuscript, those copied for a specific opera-house or other musical institution, or commissioned by an individual patron.
It is true that no two manuscripts can ever be paleographically or codicologically identical, even if copied one after the other, by the same scribe and containing identical music. Nonetheless, there are many manuscripts that can be considered as intended to be commercially identical, in preparation and marketing: they meet the set of requirements needed to place two printed copies of a work in the same edition--with the single exception that they are in manuscript. That is: they carry the same musical content copied by the same scribe, with the intention that the content, format, and appearance be identical, and that the set of copies be put on sale together under the same conditions--offered by the same seller, at the same price, and perhaps as the result of a single advertisement. The central implications of these features are that the copyist behaved as printer and publisher, preparing a series of copies, without any idea who would buy any individual copy--even if the copyist had advertised for subscriptions in advance. (4)
It is extremely probable that copyists behaved in this manner, if only when they could foresee multiple sales of copies of the latest "hit" aria, lately performed in the local opera house. Certainly, few copyists could have survived solely on the requirements of that opera house or the few rich local patrons, without seeking opportunities to increase their sales and income. In fact, evidence for the existence of manuscript "editions", in which a series of copies meets these requirements, survives in the form of an advertisement put out by the Roman scribe, Giovanni Battista Cencetti. In 1819, before he also began to act as a printer and publisher with Leonardo Ratti, Cencetti advertised his intention of preparing copies of two sets of variations on themes by Rossini if enough customers responded and placed orders "se si avra un discreto numero di associati"--"if there will be a sufficient number of associates (purchasers)". (5) Keywords in the advertisement include Cencetti's phrase stating that he "desidera venirne alla pubblicazione"--"wished to publish"; that he gave himself four weeks to prepare the copies; and that each copy would contain no more than three fogli (that is, three sheets of paper, 12 folios), at a price of 30 bajocchi per sheet. (6) It is also important that he did not know in advance for whom he would be copying.
We have known that Italian (and other) printers and publishers prepared and sold manuscripts--for they were often enough responsible for producing scores and orchestral parts, for performance or for rental. This advertisement makes clear that Cencetti would also prepare copies in bulk, as commercial speculations. …