Urtext or travesty? You decide

January 1, 2005 at 07:42 AM · On considering a letter I read by cellist Janos Starker in November's Strad issue, I thought it would be interesting what members of Violinist.com thought about the subject.

Starker disagrees with the vilification of versions of peices made by eminent performers which don't necessarily adher to the composer's urtext. He gives the example of Tchaikovsky's Roccoco variation and disagrees with the fact that the version cellists have been brought on for decades made by the original performer, Fitzhagen(which deviates radically from Tchaik's score), has in the wake of a new urtext suddenly become a "travesty" fit for the dustbin. He reckons that there is nothing wrong with a instrumentalist's attempt to make an opus better suit his instrument. I think I am inclined to agree with him.

I know it raises many opposing issues but a little (contained) artistic licence gives the performer a real confidence in the actualisation of the piece and makes them feel part of the creative process rather than just recreating another's intentions.

The first thing that came to my mind was the same composer's Violin Concerto. Looking at evidence, it appears that Auer's edition is no longer acceptible in some circles. It is well-known that this edition, advocated most famously by Heifetz and Elman, has been dubbed "easier" and therefore somehow lacking, and is no longer excepted at the Tchaikovsky competition. Even Oistrakh, Kogan and Milstein seem to mix the original with some of Auer's changes (esp. 1st movement).

I for one am performing this concerto in March and like to take Oistrakh's approach of interchange to the first movement (as evident in the recordings not the Peters edition violin score) but I like performing the whole uncut last movement. It would be interesting to see what other people think about the use of urtexts and alternative editions in their own study and performance. I just used the Tchaik as my example but I am sure that there are many other instances of changes made to works by eminent performers. So what do you think? Is it acceptable to use alternate versions or should only adher to urtexts as they indicate the original intention of the composer?

Replies (29)

January 1, 2005 at 08:40 AM · One should keep in mind that the more 'editing' goes on, the less the work is the composer's. Whether this makes it musically/technically more successful is up to the better judgement of the performer, but it should be born in mind that if you want to play pure Tchaikovsky, you should play the notes he indicated in the score.


January 1, 2005 at 03:51 PM · I think that it has more to do with the composer being viewed as above the performer, rather than another person involved in the musical process. In Tchaikovsky's time, the era of the virtuoso performer-composer was not over yet, and performers were more actively engaged in the process from beginning to end. In the 20th century, the composer was elevated above (and removed from) the performer more than ever before, and it became incredibly important to decide the composer's "intentions" and argue over what is the "correct" way of performing a particular piece. Some of this derived from the greater complexity of the scores in the last century, but also from the feeling on the composer's part that their music is sacrosanct, not to be interpreted but to be "transmitted", to use Stravinsky's famous line.

But the composers of the 19th century and earlier could almost expect that their pieces would be altered slightly (and in some cases, greatly) from the original notes on the manuscript, based on what the performer felt was best for him. This often resulted in better music, in my view. Composers don't always intimately know the instrument that they're writing for, or sometimes are simply long-winded -- for example, the cuts in the last movements of the Tchaikovsky or the Scottish Fantasy, which I believe in both cases streamline the movement and keep it from being too repetitive. (And personally, I think the Auer Tchaikovsky is by far the more difficult -- I'd love to hear someone take on those thirds in the first movement in a live performance.)

What I see happening now is much more exciting, where there will be different versions of a piece espoused by different performers. To me, this keeps the music more alive and vibrant, like regional accents in language or regional differences in cooking. If we are to assume that there is one "correct" way in music with respect to a particular piece, even with notes on the page, then the music becomes static -- it dies to some degree.

January 1, 2005 at 04:53 PM · For me, the urtext is the place to start. Play the piece as the composer wrote it and see how it works for you. What I find generally is that at least to some extent, the bowings the composer wrote do not always work and, to that extent, I may substitute my own judgment of what works better. Then there is the question of whether you take all repeats. But ultimately, IMHO, the performer and audience must interact with the music and the composer and decide how the piece works best. However, adding notes seems to me a bit much.

January 1, 2005 at 07:17 PM · The urtext is only the beginning. When you have a concerto written by a composer who did not play the solo instrument there are certainly going to be several different editions that spring up as several players try to negotiate the pieces' challenges. This makes perfect sense to me.

Some people take the original score and change it to suit a different instrument - like Dvorak's Cello concerto arranged for Double Bass (really!), or Glazunov's Serenade Espagnole which Kreisler arranged for violin and piano. These new arrangements usually are presented in programs as Meyer-Dvorak or Kreisler-Glazunov - showing that there has been some modification, but the important things like the tune and harmony still come from the original composer, with the arranger (or changer) mentioned as co-composer (which may be over-doing the division of credit, but does not deceive the concert-going audience as to the original author). This seems fine to me.

What bothers me is when the urtext does not create an absolute - say on tempo or dynamics - and then a certain version becomes 'accepted', precluding any attempt to play it differently. Taking the Roccoco Variations example, in 20 years people will probably be tired of the Urtext edition, and seek out other arrangements as providing a different 'take' on familiar music. Part of it is just a matter of musical fashion, I think; right now is the urtext's heyday; this too shall pass, perhaps, then come back in, then pass out again. I think it's far more important to play an edition that you can play comfortably than try to play an Urtext which may (for some reason or other) be awkward for your technical abilities. The music's the thing, after all. I doubt the thousands of arrangers or editors intended any disrespect when they published their editions of famous concerti, and it's probably insulting to their integrity to assume so.

January 1, 2005 at 10:46 PM · I believe in learning many versions of a piece, and perhaps interchanging some parts with other versions of the piece,making it something diffrent.

January 1, 2005 at 11:12 PM · I say study the urtext to understand what the composer was trying to accomplish. Whether or not you deviate some is irrelevant to me as long as the overall feeling and whatnot is heightened by the changes.

January 3, 2005 at 10:17 PM · A score has to be a bible to the musician who plays from it. And as a musician has, in the first place, to be a medium between composer and audience, it is crucial that his score represents the intentions of the composer. That's why I personnaly care a lot about urtexts. But that's not the only reason why I hate editions like Peters for example. Another reason is that they add so many things like crescendos, articulations, etc, that, if you play it like it's in those scores, there's no room for your own personal creativity anymore. It's like eating a pre-chewed chewing-gum...

January 4, 2005 at 01:11 PM · Hi,

This is an interesting topic. I think that today we are very text oriented which was not always the case. And composers vary in that regard. For example, Bach wrote all the ornementation in his Sonatas and Partitas, which makes one think that text was literal and important to him. However, Brahms once told Joachim that even after the Concerto was printed he could still make changes and that Brahms would rather hear the Concerto played by Joachim in his version, than to hear it by anyone else in Brahms's version. So...

In some original texts, slurs are often phrase markings rather than bowings per say, which can make it hard. However, we live in literal times. Urtext is always the best place to start, though I am not always convinced it is the best place to end in?


January 4, 2005 at 02:59 PM · Christian -- interesting that you should raise the issue of the Brahms concerto. As far as I can tell, there is no urtext for it. I purchased the Joachim edited version on the theory that he had significant input into the writing of the concerto and probably knew better than anyone what Brahms wanted. The counterargument, of course, is that he may have edited in things that Brahms rejected, although your post suggests that this argument has little weight.

January 4, 2005 at 02:38 PM · The Tchaik concerto is an interesting discussion in this debate (and one dear to my heart, though not entirely under my fingers). My discinct impression is that Auer's version is actually mostly _harder_. I am casually self-studying the first movement, and I am playing mostly straight Tchaik because I find it easier. (Esp some of the parts later on where Auer has running thirds, and Tchaik has simple 16ths...if memory serves. I don't have the score in front of me.)

Having read the liner notes for about two dozen recordings of the Tchaik, here is my unscholarly impression of why there is an Auer edition (this is collected from things a lot of different commentators left implied, and may well contain errors- corrections welcome):

1. When composers dedicate a concerto to a performer, it is conventional to give that performer a lot of input, and a final review of the work, before it is published (see Joachim vis-a-vis Brahms, David - Mendelssohn, etc).

2. Tchaikovsky had his work reviewed by Kotek, but dedicated it to Auer when Kotek (for various reasons) declined to premier it. He then published it as such before Auer had seen it.

3. Auer thus was confronted by a fairly hard work the whole word had access to, with his name on it. He had been put in an awkward position by Tchaik (perhaps because T was in Switzerland, not Russia at the time - I don't think it was a deliberate offense). He essentially felt forced to play the piece as is...and it is indeed quite hard, and some people have called it unviolinstic. (I don't think I agree, really.)

4. He initiaully refused to play it, refusing to rise to the (from his point of view, rather rude) dare.

5. Later on, he saw its value, but he had already publicly stated that it was unplayable. Therefore, he applies the edits that he would have made to Tchaik had he been consulted, and publishes his own edition. He never performs it himself, but teaches it to his students.

Since they were the initial champions, the Auer version is the one on most major recordings at least before 1950 or so, at least the influential ones.

My personal opinion, as an amateaur of the concerto (I can play through the whole thing, but not in concert shape or at performance speed yet) is that Auer's version is musically roughly equal to Tchaik's, and his cuts in the finale seem distinctly superior. (Even the performer and conductor at the permier asked to make cuts in the finale, probably at the same places, but Tchaik disliked them....so we have that little bit of evidence for his intentions.) I consider both versions to have musical value, but then I am of the camp that is happy to see greater individual choice made by the performer, rather than worshiping at the shrine of composers intentions. I am glad many interpreters play strict orthodox versions, as I like to hear them, but I also am happy to hear heterodox versions. As the Brahms anecdote above shows, many composers expected performers to take some latitudes, as long as they were in good taste (whatever that means).

January 4, 2005 at 03:52 PM · Francis's post raises an interesting question: what to do with violin concertos by composers who were not string players. With the concerti of composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Hindemith and Bach, I would think one would want to hew more closely to the urtext on the theory that they knew what they were doing (although I find odd bowing issues even in their concerti). As far as I know, Brahms and Tchaik were not string players; that is presumably why they got significant input from violinists and why their concerti initially were declared "unplayable". Does this argue for greater deviations in those cases from the urtext?

January 4, 2005 at 06:09 PM · Well, Beethoven and Bach were certainly not string players to any real degree (although Bach did play some), but they did know what they were doing with respect to the instrument.

One thing to think about is that the score is not beginning and end. It is the beginning, especially for Classical and Baroque works. The composers assumed and expected that there would be embellishment. And with later pieces, the score doesn't always indicate rubato, tempo, phrasing, and all the things that make a performance unique. So to say that the score must be the bible is correct in that it must be interpreted, just as the book is interpreted.

I've been having this argument with other members of my quartet for a while now. There are one or two who tend to be Mendelssohnian about following the letter of the score, i.e. "it doesn't say rallentando, so why are we making one?" I've always been convinced that the concepts of phrasing, spacing, and timing in a particular piece very often can't be found in the score. They must be added by us. In that sense, I have to agree with the comment above "pre-chewed gum". I can't stand editions that are overly stuffed with critical additions. That's the best reason to have an urtext -- so you can put your own ideas in.

January 4, 2005 at 06:31 PM · Michael -- Beethoven may not have been the world's greatest string player, but Bach was apparently very good according to his son, CPE Bach ("he played cleanly and penetratingly to the approach of old age" or similar words.). Bach was initially trained as a violinist.

January 4, 2005 at 07:11 PM · I'll back Tom on the Bach string playing comment. Without running into a long series of historical footnotes, there is quite a popular myth about J.S. Bach's instrument preferences and playing abilities, which seems to be keyboard centric, if not completely "Pro-Organ." This may be from so much documentation in print within the last 50 or so years that focus on that aspect of his work. However, from various historical sources one can actually get a different picture- that he was facile on quite a range of instruments and especially the violin/viola.

January 4, 2005 at 07:34 PM · Andrew's point is a good one. Bach was likely a better (maybe much better since he was one of the best of his era) keyboard player than string player, but he was still apparently quite good as a violinist/violist.

January 4, 2005 at 07:53 PM · I stand corrected. :-)

I do remember reading an article (of course, can't remember who wrote it) making the assertion that Bach probably didn't have the ability to perform the unaccompanied sonatas. But of course, that's only one person's speculation.

January 4, 2005 at 08:16 PM · There are also many assertions to the contrary.

In accounts of his friendship with Pisendel, who may be the reason he wrote them in the first place - as a way to one-up his boyhood friend, one can deduce that Bach could play at a very high degree of proficiency -- high enough for a "famous virtuoso" to view him as a source of brotherhood and approval.

If you look at Bach's working life from the standpoint of maximizing time spent and duties, combined with where he was living and what the musical tastes were directly around him, it fast becomes evident that the violin would necessarily become less and less of a focus in musical preoccupation. In contrast, Pisendel, like Vivaldi, made quite a good living as a traveling performer -- of Italian violin concertos no less -- which necessitated his focus on the instrument.

And for the real speculation:

One often finds that in enduring friendships between artists, one often must acquiesce to the other in some form and find a way to excel above in yet another.

January 4, 2005 at 08:22 PM · Doesnt it also matter what type of piece it is to begin with though? for instance, the solo sonatas and partitas. We know that the ornamentation was usually changed by the performer back in those days, so small cosmetic changes would be fine right? whearas bach structured everything VERY specifically changes to chord or overall structures are a no no.

take string quartets. I wouldn't change a thing from for instance a beethoven string quartet (although the urtext is a bit shaky). Why? because i think this was not so much written for instruments but as a sort of pure music which beethoven heard very specifically, and i wouldnt want to change it. changes to bowing are all i would comtemplate.

Take a concerto, here i am more apt to change things, because it is designed to be virtuosic most of the time. Adding little things that make it more virtuosic generally add to the overall effect of the piece. the chordal structures tend to be very large so small changes probably wouldnt affect the overall structure in any way.

Also, like many have pointed out, composers seemed generally to let violinists edit their concerti at will. Whearas if you asked beethoven if you could change his quartets he would have probably yelled at you.

January 4, 2005 at 09:11 PM · If Beethoven yelled, it was due more to how he composed.

Bach would build a brick wall in courses. Each following the last, in a flowing sequence.

Beethoven would build, tear down, start the foundation again, build a course and a half and tear the first run down and go on doing this until he was done.

I think if you built a brick wall that way, you'd scream at anyone who wanted to knock it down!

But serriously, I think it is safe to assume that in the "Baroque era," borrowing, altering, transcribing, and some acts, which today a lawyer would call "plagerism" were common place. So for a specific composer to view their "printed work" as untouchable and sacrosanct, would be a minority view. I think Bach nor Handle would mind too much if one "improved their work in performance," but if the "improvement" was not tasteful, that was socially unacceptable, let alone an artistic insult. Far be it for us though, with 300 years of fog to know what would be "tasteful" in their minds.

As time went on, we know historically, that composers userped even the "cadenza" away from the performer --we also see that the idea of "copyright" comes into being in the legal systems at around about the same time --NOT a coincidence.

January 4, 2005 at 11:20 PM · Andrew -- I would bet Beethoven would have yelled if you tried to change anything he wrote.

January 5, 2005 at 01:46 AM · Andrew...

As a great man once said, "Great composers do not borrow - they steal."

This man was Igor Stravinsky... True he was not the greatest composer for stringed instruments... his violin concerto is not very well known, but I think he has a very valid point. Each individual artist will have their own opinion on what pieces are okay to make minor changes on to clarify ideas, but some composers (As mentioned before... Beethoven, for example) were very strict with what they wrote in their scores. I would assume that anything written on the page was meant to be written on the page, and a composer's intimate relationship with the soloist to initially perform the piece would be further evidence of this. If a composer had a certain soloist's sound in mind, they would trust THIS person's opinion. The concerto was meant to be played this way, as the composer picked this style and obviously approved the editions suggested by the original desired soloists. If an artist nowadays makes changes to an urtext in effort to "further express the thoughts of the composer" (or themselves...), what they are really doing is CHANGING what the composer was trying to express, not further the cause.

I said it before, and I say it again... If a composer wrote something down on a piece of paper and published it, chances are they meant what they wrote in the urtext. Unless further editions were made by the composer, I wouldn't trust them. It just doesn't seem right to me for artists to be changing a composer's thoughts, emotions and struggles to fit their needs or desires for a piece. A concerto should be played the way the composer wanted it to be played; the way he wrote it.


January 5, 2005 at 07:51 AM · Despite the interrest of this topic,we cannot definetely choose the camp we're in. It depends very much upon which period we are refering to. Most of us would be unable to decipher gregorian scores,it out of subject, I know, but even specialist of this music are not in accordance.

For the music we're interrested in, say after 1650 ,ornaments are quiet confusing ,some dont exist any longer , some have different meaning according to the period or the composer (for example + means trille only in Haendel'music)

futhermore baroque music looks like Jazz with a Continous Basse which is a kind of "chords chart" ,appogiaturas were frequently "understood" but not written,frequent improvisation and so on.

Ornaments had not a fixed meaning and were source of discussion between musicians ( see Mozart's letters to his sister)

Many handwriting music were difficult to translate and some difference appeared in the printing and some editors sometimes "corrected"


So if you want to play the most accurately this music, you 'll have to study thoroughly one author,a life work, and you still have some doubt on the accuracy of your interpretation.Romantic music is easier to approach since everything is fixed but you'll noticed that despite the precision in writing, interpretation might widely change;Take a Beethoven symphony played by Berlin orchestra under Furtwangler and under Karajan :same work ,same orchestra, probably same material,but the result is quiet different.

As for contemporary music ,maximum of details, doesn't change greatly the varieties of interpretation. Unless he is paranoiac, composer is only an audience: he may ,like ,dislike,aggree disaggree with the interpretation of his work but he often likes more than one version of his work

January 5, 2005 at 02:40 PM · Tom, my point exactly.

I think Beethoven would have been inclined to jealously guard his creations for not only the preservation of "correctness" in performance but also because it took so much out of him to create them.

Of the manuscripts in his hand that I've seen, it sure is telling how he went about commiting notes to paper.

Lefebure Alain,

I tend to hold the same view on this as you do. In reality there is probably so much more to be discovered in artifacts (papers, letters, documents & etc.) about many composers related to their music) that it truly is a life-work for anyone so inclined to attempt at a final answer an many of these questions.

In practice, I think my own method has been to look at the historical context of a piece and the way it has been played, what I can gleen from the urtext and what I feel I can bring out in it.

Also, in looking at the historical context, I must take into consideration that some "alterations" that have been accepted for decades and performed that way, which do not reflect the urtext 100% may have value as well; especially, if they have intrinsically touched audiences and players through the years. I can't disregard them and cast them off completely. I must deal with them and decide if THAT is what I use as a performance guide or if I attempt to mount my own archeological dig with the urtext. Perhaps I may even use both.

January 5, 2005 at 04:11 PM · There actually is at least one recorded instance of Beethoven yelling at a performer who took too many liberties with his music. His subsequent apology has survived and went something like this--"You must excuse a composer who would prefer to hear his work played exactly as written, no matter how beautifully you played in general..."

January 5, 2005 at 04:58 PM · There you have it!

I think that is the kind of thing one needs as evidence as to what a composer actually thought of their published compositions.

I don't know if it is quite safe to assume that if no historical record of their objection to alteration exists that one can take liberties or not, but the existance of such should really make one refrain from doing so.

January 5, 2005 at 05:52 PM · To what degree do works cease to "belong" to the composer, and more become a part of a consensus of musical material?

Surely, the older an original gets, the less accurate are the subsequent copies, or in the case of music, the performances.

While there is much to be said for doing our best to "get" what the composer intended, I feel there is a sense in which these older works no longer belong to them, a bit like the way children grow up, and leave their parents.

It is said that in Shakespeare's time, English was spoken with quite an accent, more like what we hear today in the West Country.

How would the Bard have taken to the performances we hear in Received Pronunciation? How would the usual visitors to Stratford like it if the speeches were delivered in a Bristolian brogue?


January 5, 2005 at 06:13 PM · Graham,

Sure, if meaning isn't lost. There's more than one way to play a piece correctly, but there are sensible limitations too.


January 5, 2005 at 07:55 PM · but remember, beethoven was a bit of an ass at times. after he called lobkowitz that very same insult after he suggested that perhaps they could in fact proceed with the rehearsal despite the second basoonist not showing up.

i mean, cmon, second bassoon?

January 6, 2005 at 02:31 PM · Nowadays we have many critics that explain what the author meant in writing music, book or anything. Those explanations are sometimes surprising for the author himself. Recently one of my compositions were pleasantly performed, but the concert master's analysis of the piece was really astonishing to me. I asked other music composers and books writers if they have similar feelings..they have. Any author is specific and we can't generalize,but it seems that individual who explains what another thinks is a character of our epoch.

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