The Plain Truth About Urtext, Part 1

What is Urtext?
Questions to Jonathan Del Mar

 Why do we need an urtext edition?

Del Mar: Well, you do want to play the notes the composer wrote, don’t you, and not some random wrong notes that just slipped in by mistake ?

So is that all an Urtext Edition is, simply “the notes the composer wrote”?

No, it isn’t as simple as that. You see, it often happens that the composer has second thoughts. He changes his mind – but his manuscript has already gone to the printer! So what is he to do? He asks the publisher for a proof copy to correct, and he writes his latest thoughts in there. So we look at the printed first edition, and it has something completely different from what’s in the composer’s manuscript – that almost certainly points to a revision by the composer in the final proofs.

It is true that there is still quite a lot still to be discovered from the composer`s manuscript; editors so often make their editions from bad photocopies in which a grain in the paper or a stitch-hole looks exactly like a staccato mark. And it sometimes even happens that you look at a photocopy printed out from microfilm, and the note is F – but you look at the original, and behold, the note is absolutely clearly G. No one can quite explain how this happens, but it happens; and this means that for those editors who go to the trouble of working from the original manuscript, the are still discoveries to be made.

So how would you define an Urtext Edition?

An edition which thoroughly and exhaustively examines all the source material in order to present that text which, using all the expertise of which you are capable, comes as near as possible to the composer’s final intentions.

What is meant by “source material” ?

Anything over which the composer had some control. So: not merely his original manuscript, but also any copyist’s scores which he may have corrected, first editions of which he is known to have corrected the proofs, letters to the publishers which may discuss the work, everything that has any relevance, over which the composer had some influence. Sometimes it can actually mean even more than that: take for example a set of manuscript parts which the composer used for performance, and told the orchestra what corrections to make. So the players all put those corrections, from the composers mouth, into their parts. Now those parts are used as model for the printed first edition parts. The manuscript parts are then thrown away – all we have is the printed first edition parts! – but because they derive from crucially important manuscript parts which the composer corrected in rehearsal, those first edition parts are an essential authentic source.

Why do we need new editions?

One clear reason is that a manuscript, thought lost, comes to light. This is especially the case for many works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn, whose autographs were in the library in Berlin, then during the war stored in safe places, but unfortunately after all the turmoil of the war no one could remember where they were. So all these manuscripts were thought lost until 1977 when they surfaced in Poland. But meanwhile, very many supposedly authoritative editions had been published. Now they all have to be done again!

And then the auction houses are proud to ensure that we do not forget: some manuscripts are in private hands, so that scholars cannot study them. Often it happens that a manuscript comes up for auction, and then, if we are lucky, we may get to view it briefly. If we are even luckier, it may be bought by a public institution, and is then available for scholars to study. Then, of course, it can be used for the next edition.

Another reason why older editions, even “Urtexts”, are replaced by new ones is that, sad to say, not all editors are as good at their job as each other. They make mistakes; they make idiotic deductions which any musician can see were wrong; they simply overlook things which, if you look carefully at the manuscript, are quite clear; and they decide that this or that source was not worth looking at, when another editor can tell you exactly why, on the contrary, it is of essential importance. So another editor comes along, shows up all the mistakes and editorial errors of the previous edition (or editions) and with luck, proves his point, that his edition is worth having instead of the previous ones which were guilty of mistakes, misjudgements, and oversights.

What can musicians gain from Urtext Editions?

Well, I´m sorry to say that it depends on which Urtext Edition it is. Some are so badly done, with so little understanding of the music or of the tradition into which the music was written, that they are actually damaging and harmful; the original edition was actually better. Yes it may have had mistakes, but at least you could tell that here is an obvious mistake, and you just correct it. But if a misguided scholar tells you in the commentary that he knows the note is A in the first edition, but this is “obviously” a mistake for G, the poor musician will probably be intimidated by the weight of (apparent) authority, into playing G, when actually the composer may have meant A, unexpected though this note may have (to the editor) seemed.

But with luck the Urtext Edition will at least have a commentary. Some Urtext Editions don`t even give you that; you are supposed to trust the scholar to have impeccable judgement and also to be an excellent proof-reader, so that any wrong note (which is actually simply a misprint) is supposed to be taken on trust to be the new authentic note. This of course demands a leap of faith which is often quite unfounded and unwarranted.

So, the least the customer should expect, before shelling out good money for a new Urtext Edition, is that there is a commentary explaining the editor`s decisions. If there is, it is then impossible to generalize (i. e. as to whether the edition is good or not); the only hope is to ask other musicians if they have had experience of editions of this composer with that publisher, and do they seem plausible? If that is too difficult, then one can only advise that an Urtext Edition should have looked at the sources carefully, done its homework responsibly, and given you an accurate text, correcting the mistakes in the old editions. With luck, you may lind that it has. At the very least, it will be clearly legible and be on good, robust modern paper so that you can rub out bowings and fingerings without making a hole in the paper.

Jonathan Del Mar (b. 1951) is an English conductor and musicologist. His edition of the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven published by Bärenreiter-Verlag (1996–2000) caused a sensation. Many of the world’s leading conductors now use these editions. Del Mar has gone on to create Urtext editions of many other works by Beethoven for Bärenreiter: concertos, cello works, string quartets, piano sonatas, as well as Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and 7th Symphony, and the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar.