The Plain Truth About Urtext, Part 3

What is Urtext?

Questions to Michael Stegemann

The term “Urtext”, what does it mean to you?

Stegemann: An “Urtext” edition represents absolute reliability – particularly for musicians who play from one of these editions, but also for scholars and research. As well as this, anyone who wants to track the philological genesis of such an edition can follow this by using the critical apparatus.

Can the “Urtext” not simply be found in the composer’s manuscript?

This might be the case with contemporary music, but it is certainly not the case with music before 1950. Apart from (often very revealing) sketches and early versions which originated before the creation of the fair copy of a valid working manuscript, the journey from this starting point to a first edition is often so complex that only a thorough comparison of all available sources can provide information about the composer’s intentions. In addition, early editions were very much less meticulous and reliable than those we use today.

But there are numerous editions of great works from the history of music. Why do we constantly need new editions?

Loosely quoting Gustav Mahler’s remark that “tradition” is often only “sloppiness”, publishers have often made do by reprinting their old editions – including all the mistakes! And even when modern new editions are published, these were and are often simply unaltered reprints, as the cost of creating a historical-critical edition would be far too great. Only with a historical-critical “Urtext” edition – as, for example, the great complete editions which Bärenreiter publishes – is a reliable reading of the work guaranteed, which then really requires no other editions of the work in question.

What do musicians gain from Urtext editions?

Practical experience reveals that musicians mostly rely uncritically on the music text, practising and rehearsing from it. When they work with an “Urtext” edition, they can be certain that they are using a text in the form the composer intended. Above all, in a time of “fake news” (and “fake notes” …), a source of this kind is simply indispensable!

Michael Stegemann – born in 1956 in Osnabrück. Studied (composition, musicology, Romance languages and literature, philosophy and art history) in Münster and Paris, including master classes with Olivier Messiaen. In his work he has specialized in the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Mozart and Schubert, and Russian and French music. Radio dramas, programme series and presentation work for different departments of the ARD. German Audio Book Prize (2008) for The Glenn Gould Trilogy. Recent books include Franz Liszt – Genie im Abseits (Piper, Munich 2011). Since 2002, Professor of Historical Musicology at the TU Dortmund. In 2016 Michael Stegemann became Editorial Director of the 36-volume edition of the Œuvres instrumentales complètes of Camille Saint-Saëns published by Bärenreiter-Verlag.