What is an Urtext Edition of Music?

April 5, 2018, 1:58 PM · There was a time in history when sheet music editions were getting way out of hand. Like a game of telephone, every time a piece was published, it got further from the composer's original and changed its meaning.

One reaction was the emergence of "urtext" - those well-researched editions of sheet music that aim to reflect exactly the composer wrote in the first place. In late March, I learned more about the history and art of urtext from Douglas Woodfull-Harris, an editor for the German-based music publisher Bärenreiter for the last 30 years. He spoke at an event at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif.

At the end of the 19th century, during music's Romantic era, previously-written music was liberally modified to fit the tastes of the time. Though music is always subject to current trends, the problem was that music publishers set it to print that way. For example, the Leipzig-based music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel had issued a series of thick volumes of "collected works" of most of the era's great composers, ranging from Bach through the then-current Romantic era. Those volumes took serious liberties, Woodfull-Harris said.

Douglas Woodfull-Harris and Laurie Niles
Bärenreiter Editor Douglas Woodfull-Harris and Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles.

Not only that, but "these editions became the standard for everything we know about music today," Woodfull-Harris said. Other publishers, such as International and Schirmer, also used them as the basis for editions that followed. Artists also would alter the music and come up with their own editions, and "in some cases they altered the music significantly," adding, removing and even changing notes, Woodfull-Harris said. Though such editions had little to do with what the composer wrote, "these arrangements became the standards that everyone heard."

The term "urtext" refers to the earliest version of a text. The term originally emerged in reference to a movement in 19th-century Germany, to reach back to the original sources for literary works by authors such as Goethe and Schiller. "Urtext" editions of western music started to surface in the early 20th century, Woodfull-Harris said, with Peters in the 1920s; Henle in 1948 and Bärenreiter shortly afterwards.

Bärenreiter was founded before that, in 1923, by Karl Vötterle, starting in Augsburg and moving four years later to Kassel, Germany, where it has been headquartered ever since. Since the beginning, the idea of scholarly editions of music have been central to the company's mission, with Vötterle striving to create critical editions based on research into the score, the genesis of the score, autograph copies, handwritten parts, first editions and galleys. Bärenreiter's first official "urtext" editions started coming out around 1950.

Some 70 years later, the genre has evolved. Woodfull-Harris defines an "urtext" edition as a scholarly, critical edition of a piece of music, with an objective analysis of all sources available, including the latest research. Barenreiter also includes a critical commentary that lists those sources and explains any changes made to the music.

"I think an urtext edition has a responsibility to be a reliable representation of what is available," he said, and at the same time, it must be a practical, functional tool that musicians easily can use.

"You have to be able to put it on the stand and play it," Woodfull-Harris said. "The intention is to give a reliable, objective basis," but the player must still understand and interpret the music and make it his or her own.

Up to a decade of research can go into a single Bärenreiter edition, with its creamy pages of tidy musical notation and historical and practical commentary. "It is not just taking a first edition by Durand and setting it with Sibelius," Woodfull-Harris said, using the example of a piece by Ravel.

Among the approximately 30 editions that Woodfull-Harris has edited are the Bach Suites for Cello (that's the one that took 10 years); the Debussy Violin Sonata (which took about three years) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for Left Hand (which took seven years).

"You have to ask the music questions, and then look for solutions," said Woodfull-Harris, who played the guitar professionally and also studied musical composition before getting into music editing. It's a little bit like detective work, and more full of surprises and discoveries than one might think.

For example, Woodfull-Harris came across a surprising discovery when editing Debussy's Cello Sonata. It had to do with a marking in measure 18 of the second movement:

Above are measures 18 and 19 -- what does that "O" mean, marked over the low "C"? It looks to our modern eyes like either a harmonic or a fingering, an indication to play that note with an open string. And in fact, the practice has been to bow the note with an open string, as a harmonic doesn't make sense.

Woodfull-Harris found this interpretation a little suspicious, though. Debussy wrote his cello sonata in 1915, and at the time, it was rather unusual for a composer to write fingerings in the music. Also, why would you need to indicate an open string for a note that can be played no other way? Yet Debussy himself had indeed written the "O" in his original autograph.

From Debussy's autograph of the cello sonata (arrow added)

Woodfull-Harris asked musicians, he asked the music, and he did some digging. Could a "O" mean anything else?

"In many respects, articulations and signs we use today had a completely different meaning to composers in the 19th century and early 20th century," Woodfull-Harris said. Apparently, this was the case here: something that means one thing to us today meant something entirely different, 100 years ago. Take a look at just a little part of Paganini's autograph for the 24 Caprices - below is Caprice No. 24, Variation 9:

In this case, the "O" over the notes clearly calls for left-hand pizzicato. The way we notate that now is with a "+," not an "O." But he found similar examples in works by Mozart, in which the "O" clearly meant left-hand pizzicato. Then he also found an early sketch by Debussy of this work, and not only did Debussy put a "O" over the note, but he also wrote in "pizz."

From one of Debussy's sketches of the cello sonata (arrow added)

This combination of evidence convinced Woodfull-Harris that the note was indeed intended to be played as left-hand pizzicato, not arco, and that the current common performance practice does not reflect Debussy's actual intentions. Of course, cellists did not take it well.

"You are crazy, no," was the first reaction by cellist Steven Isserlis, when he first saw Woodfull-Harris's edition of the Debussy Cello Sonata, he said. When presented with the evidence, though, he came around.

"If something is 'wrong,' it is very difficult to get someone to change what they have been doing," Woodfull-Harris said. But with hundreds of thousands of symbols in every piece of music, a critical examination will certainly raise controversial questions with at least some of them.

And whatever the composer wrote, the performing artist has the ultimate say. The "urtext" edition simply gives the performer an accurate-as-possible representation of the composer's ideas.

"A good critical edition provides information, a good critical edition provokes," Woodfull-Harris said. "It tries to get a player to look at a piece of music in all its facets."

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April 6, 2018 at 09:23 AM · What an interesting article!

April 6, 2018 at 01:10 PM · Laurie - thanks so much for this fascinating blog on urtexts. I have been consistently surprised when I have consulted manuscript facsimiles or urtexts to resolve questions about pieces I was learning. For example, if you look at the urtext of the Beethoven vc, you will find a much more limited number of slurs than in most edited editions. And, the Bach S&P manuscript is sometimes quite difficult to decipher when trying to figure out the slurs, i.e., which notes are within a particular slur and which are not. Bach was not necessarily consistent, which does not help matters.

Interestingly, the Bach S&P manuscript does contain one fingering, in the measure 34 of the Third Partita's Gavotte and Rondeau.

April 6, 2018 at 01:42 PM · I have become a huge fan of Barenreiter, in part because of the quality of paper, printing, layout and binding. In recent months, I've chosen the Barenreiter editions over others for this reason (and the in-depth research that goes into creating these urtext editions). It's nice to have the peace of mind that things were not "improved upon" from the original works by editors and other artists.

Thanks Laurie!

April 6, 2018 at 02:44 PM · Really interesting, Laurie! I am also a fan of the Barenreiter editions. I've used them recently for Mozart's "Requiem," Haydn's "Paukenmesse," and Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater." (And I love the blue covers!)

April 6, 2018 at 03:30 PM · I would have to disagree with Woodfull-Harris. My interpretation, when playing that low C in the Debussy, is to bow into and off the string, let it reverberate, then interrupt the resonance with the pizzicato on the E-flat ~ which is clearly marked. This is, afterall, the impressionist period and composers were experimenting beyond conventional markings; in some cases they had an effect in mind, but an incomplete language to communicate that effect. For me, it's a middle ground between a bowed note and a pizz, and it's consistent with the treatment of the other pizz passages in this movement, where you are sliding between sounded pizzicato notes and strumming, only to break the ringing strings with a plucked note. This is a case where studying the entire context in that movement might result in a different interpretation.

April 6, 2018 at 04:15 PM · I also rely on Barenreiter editions to the extent that they are available for pieces. In addition to the care that goes into creating them, they are easy for older folks like me to read, which is an enormous plus. I do have a few urtexts in other editions, e.g., the Henle for the Beethoven vc, and Szerying's edition (Schott) for the Bach S&Ps. The latter is, in fact, and urtext because Szerying is careful to distinguish his edits from what is in the original manuscript.

April 6, 2018 at 08:10 PM · Some years ago I was learning the Vivaldi Amin (Op3 No6) in Suzuki Book 4. I soon became concerned that there were things in that version which were manifestly not original Vivaldi. I discussed it with my teacher and we agreed to work from an urtext I downloaded from the internet. It was a similar situation a while later in Book 5 which has that truly delightful G minor concerto by Vivaldi - some editor had messed around with it, so again I found an urtext on the internet.

April 7, 2018 at 04:09 AM · They can be inspiring, and the written histories and informational notes - for example on the Brahms Violin Sonatas - can be a little bit like reading a short story!

April 10, 2018 at 04:30 PM · Interesting! Thank you Laurie :)

April 11, 2018 at 09:23 PM · Sheet music. As Ivry Gitlis would say it is just something that a printing press coughed up.

I can't say that I am totally crazy about this current urtext obsessed mentality.

Did the composers always play as they wrote? I often have doubts. Take,for example,Signor Paganini....

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