What Is an Urtext Edition?

May 1, 2013

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Not all print music is the same. Not all publishers are the same.

Some publishers make a business of selling inexpensive reprints of old edition; some publishers produce practical editions for the student market or another specific purpose.

A handful of publishers, however, create scores called “urtext editions” that are highly regarded by professional musicians, teachers and students. What is an Urtext and how is it different from other musical scores? Read on to find out!

A short answer: an Urtext edition aims to present music as the composer intended. This sounds like a straightforward goal but, for historical music, can actually be a very tricky task.

A longer answer: publishers of Urtext editions work directly with scholars (musicologists, music theorists, historians) to produce well-made, practical, modern editions of a musical text that is, according to the most up-to-date research and latest scholarship, the closest reflection of the composer’s intention.

Urtext editions are created using all available historical sources. These include not only the composer’s manuscript (where available) and published editions but also hand-written copies and revisions. Editors will also take into account the latest research on performance practice.

Barenreiter Verlag, one of the leading publisher’s of Urtext editions, describes the concept as follows:

“The German prefix ur- literally means “original” or “earliest”. The earliest use of the term urtext goes back to the 19th century where it appeared in connection with literary texts. It referred to the original texts of writers such as Goethe or Shakespeare which one tried to restore and free from editorial additions.
At Bärenreiter the label “urtext” describes a scholarly-critical edition based on all known sources.”

Some useful information about Urtext editions is available on Barenreiter’s website. The publisher highlights not only the scholarship that informs their editions but also the practical aspects that make their publications truly useful musical scores. They have published a brochure describing the benefits of Urtext editions and produced an informative film!

Urtext editions are not only prized by musicians for their authenticity and scholarship, they are also highly regarded for their practicality and thoughtful construction. Both Barenreiter and Henle put great care into practical considerations such as page turns, indexing, clear printing, and paper quality. Urtext editions are beautifully-produced books that are a joy to use.

Although Urtext editions command a higher price than reprints, the benefits to the serious musician are numerous. The Leading Note stocks scores from all the best publishers of Urtext editions including Barenreiter Verlag, Henle Verlag, Edition Peters, Wiener Urtext Verlag, and Oxford University Press. These editions are worth the expense when authenticity and accuracy are your concern.

To give you an example of the kind of work editors of Urtext editions do, we present the following example from the blog of Henle Verlag, another leading publisher of Urtext editions:

Beethoven Op. 90

This is Beethoven’s manuscript of his Piano Sonata in E Minor, Opus 90. The fragment shows the end of the development in the first movement and the beginning of the recapitulation. Beethoven has scribbled in the left hand the words “come sopra”, which means “like above”. A few brief notes in the right hand show the opening of the principal theme with which the movement began.

An issue of contention for editors is whether this short-hand notation applies at the beginning of the measure or whether it applies also to the anacrusis: the lightly scawled E in the left hand that ends the previous measure is clearly in a different pen and appears to be a quarter note. The earliest published edition of this work includes a quarter-note E with an eighth-note G in the right hand, a peculiar transition in Beethoven’s style.

In the photograph below, you can see how the Henle Urtext edition (top-most example) differs from other publications that are copies of the early published version (click for more detail):

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The Urtext edition by Henle Verlag includes a full E minor chord here (under the asterisk), as Beethoven wrote at the beginning of the movement. Only this Urtext edition includes a footnote to let the performer know that there is any scholarly debate about this section. The other editions continue to reproduce errors that are not idiomatic to Beethoven’s style.

For more information about this example, please see Henle’s blog.

There are numerous reasons why Urtext editions are superior to other publications: not only are you getting an edition created by leading scholars, you are getting a beautiful published book, made with the performer’s needs in mind.

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