This page deals with the interrelated questions of: “which edition to use?” ….. “how do we know if the interpretative indications (tempo, articulations, expressions etc.) that are in our music are really what the composer wanted?” …….. “to what degree should we religiously obey all the indications that the composer wrote in his composition?” ….. or, to state this last question in different words “how much freedom can we allow ourselves to contradict the composer’s original exact instructions?” This article has considerable overlap with the discussion about “Freedom or Obedience” in the Psychology section.
The German prefix “Ur” simply means “original, authentic”, and “Urtext” editions are those in which the only editorial markings (and musical material) included are those that are found in the original autograph manuscript by the composer (or by the original copyist).
Urtext editions take us back to the composer’s original ideas by eliminating two sources of editorial “contamination”:
1: EDITORIAL MISTAKES
- Gabriel Fauré was very upset by the large number of editorial errors in the published version of some of his works. His publishers promised to correct them in the next printing but Fauré died in the meantime. The publishers used this as an opportunity to avoid the expense of correcting the new editions, so the errors have stayed ……..
- In a famous work by Bartok the published metronome marking was wrong by 20 beats per minute – so everybody played the piece at a crazy tempo until Georg Solti consulted the original manuscript and discovered the error ………
- Even the most modern edition of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony has fundamental editorial mistakes: for example, in one long passage marked “spiccato” for the cellos, Sibelius had actually specified “pizzicato”
…….. this list could go on and on endlessly.
2: EDITORIAL REMOVALS, REVISIONS AND RENOVATIONS (IMPROVEMENTS)
In the past, editors and publishers often considered it their job and duty (just like in literary publishing/editing) to “improve” the composer’s score by adding their own interpretative ideas and also by sometimes modifying, removing or “reorganising” both the composer’s original material and their interpretative suggestions. Sometimes, of course, the editors were right. One of the most radical works of editorial revision was the total reorganisation of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent “Rococo Variations” and it is quite possible that the editorially revised version is even better than the original!
URTEXT AS A WONDERFUL STARTING POINT
The respect of Urtext editions for the composers’ original intentions was a revolution in music publishing. However, this doesn’t mean that these editions are the rigid unalterable divine-and-only truth. Even an “Urtext” (original) edition is neither a guarantee of infallibility nor is it necessarily the best version of a composition. These editions are simply a truly wonderful starting point for working out our own interpretation (tempi, bowings, articulations, dynamics, expressive indications etc). Let’s look at why this is:
WHY URTEXT IS NOT ALWAYS THE “BEST” PLAYING EDITION OF A PIECE
MANUSCRIPT ERRORS AND INCONSISTENCIES
Especially in past epochs, new works were often written hurriedly for a coming concert. With deadlines and financial pressure, Mozart, for example, sometimes didn’t even have time to finish writing out a new piece, let alone to carefully correct the inevitable copying (notation) accidents or to worry about the fine details of a slur here, a staccato dot there etc. Very often in the original autograph manuscripts, the same phrase is bowed or articulated differently in a parallel passage that is otherwise exactly identical. We don’t know if this was a deliberate attempt by the composer to add variety, a simple error, or just that the composer liked both possibilities and didn’t really care which one was used (or maybe didn’t even realise that the two parallel passages were presented differently). We can consider these inconsistencies as a “problem” ….. or we can take them as an invitation to decide for ourselves between the different alternatives, or even to create a new one! Let’s look at some examples of possible manuscript errors:
If we consult the autograph manuscript of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata here we can find many examples of these types of errors. For example, in bars 385-386 of the third movement there is a “ritardando” indication that seems to be written one bar later than it should be played (see parallel passage bars 389-390). And even Bach seems to have made some note errors: in bar 8 of the Gavotte II from the Sixth Suite, the bottom note of the chord seems to be a semitone too high and in the first movement of his Sonata Nº 1 for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1014 there is an awful dissonance (the same one as in the Gavotte) in bar 21 which would seem to be completely out of style.
If we treat our Urtext manuscripts as the bible, we risk making interpretations that will please only the most scholarly of our listeners.
Indications in the original sources are often ambiguous. Sometimes it is not clear where a slur ends or starts, on which note is the staccato dot, whether something that looks like an accent is actually a diminuendo and vice versa etc. The Urtext editors have to make informed decisions about these questions, which we might subsequently take to be the bible, unaware of the editorial choices made. According to Stephen Isserlis, there are an average of 30 differences per movement between the first (1970’s) and the most recent Urtext editions of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas.
Even Urtext editors and publishers also make mistakes. Sometimes even the supposedly best Urtext editions can have blatant errors and oversights. A comparison of the autograph manuscript of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata with a normally excellent “Urtext” edition (Henle) reveals a considerable number of differences (errors). Apart from the frequent confusion between accents and diminuendos, some unambiguous slurs and dynamics are overlooked (bars 256-258 movt III) or misplaced (bars 426-427 same movt). Stephen Isserlis’s wrote an excellent article on this subject in the October 2011 Strad Magazine.
In a 2021 Urtext edition of Bruckner’s 6th Symphony, the editors have been so true to the original text that they have even kept Bruckner’s incongruous and unhelpful use of clefs in the cello part. Bruckner was a composer and not a cellist (or music editor/publisher) and it seems (according to this edition) that he didn’t ever use the tenor clef. Therefore, some passages (the highest ones) are notated in the treble clef one octave higher than they sound, while all the other cello music is notated in the bass clef, which means that the many other (less high) passages are notated very high above the stave.
This is a shame, and even a bit ridiculous. If Urtext editions want also to be playing editions (and not just a modern reproduction of historical material) then the publishers/editors should use their common sense as well as academic rigour. As long as the composer’s musical intentions are not changed in any way, there should be no problem in improving the use of clefs, in the same way that there is no reason to keep the original layout, page-turns etc. Bruckner composed in a full score format – he didn’t write out the individual instrument playing parts. For reading a score, it is doubtless easier to understand with fewer clefs, but the tenor clef is a very convenient tool for cello parts which Urtext publishers have no need to avoid.
ROOM FOR COMPOSITIONAL IMPROVEMENTS AND INTERPRETATIVE ALTERNATIVES
Sometimes, when a composer comes back to a piece that they had previously finished, they will revise it and make a “new, improved” version which is often much better than their original “finished product”. Brahms’ Piano Trio Op 8 and several Mozart Piano Sonatas, for which both the original and revised versions are available for comparison on www.imslp.org, serve as good examples of this. In the same way that a composer is “allowed” to improve their own compositions, there should be absolutely nothing wrong with another musician trying to improve somebody else’s composition …. but only of course if their new version of it does not pretend to be the original version.
Chopin spoke of how some other pianists played his compositions better (interpretatively ?) than he himself. Have you ever heard Artur Rubinstein’s recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes ? I have. Thousands of times! And I could never understand why all other recordings of these pieces sounded so boring compared to Rubinstein’s version. That was until the day when I listened to his recording while at the same time reading the published music score. Suddenly it was clear why his version was so different to, and so much better than, any other version: it is because he often does the exact opposite to the interpretative indications that Chopin indicates in the score! Where Chopin writes a crescendo, Rubinstein makes a diminuendo etc ……. and to marvellous effect.
The most famous operas have been played, studied and listened to so much that they have almost become “folk music” in the sense that so many “improvements” have been made to their interpretation over the years that many opera scores almost need to be re-notated. It is not at all unusual for certain passages to be played at double or half-speed for greater musical effect. The original “Urtext” compositions seem so vastly inferior to these new, freer versions, in which the “unrespectful” modifications – honed, polished and approved by generations of performers, conductors and audiences – have become successful traditions.
Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” were seriously revised and reordered by the cellist Fitzenhagen although most of these changes were structural (re-ordering musical passages and making cuts) rather than changing Tchaikovsky’s notes, rhythms and harmonies. Comparing the two versions is a fascinating exercise, especially if we keep an open mind. It is possible – and certain for this writer – that Fitzenhagen’s changes really do constitute an improvement on Tchaikovsky’s original composition. Here below is a link to an excellent article by the cellist and scholar Sergei Istomin about Fitzenhagen’s contribution to this piece:
And here is a quote from the same article:
“We should take into account that in the baroque, classic and even romantic traditions the ‘holy immunity’ of a composer’s score was not taken for granted as a mandatory requirement. The musical creation was a living matter that should be recreated as if anew in every performance. Performers did not regard the composer’s score as a dead artefact. Musicians used scores as a basis, a canvas or a plan, that could be realised in their own artistic performances. This approach to performance was not self-centred. It was based rather on a full understanding of the traditions as well as the style of execution of a certain era”
The temptation to fundamentalism in all walks of life (religion, politics, music, education etc.) reflects man’s permanent search for an infallible guru or god-figure, who liberates us from the need to think, to question, and to make our own decisions. This godlike-guru-parental figure is usually vastly superior to us, has our best interests at heart, and guides us, so that now all we need to do is just sit back and do as we are told. It’s so comforting to be a child again, with absolute faith and unquestioning trust in our infallible parents (or political/religious leaders). Sometimes Urtext editions can be placed into this role!
We can never choose our parents. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can choose our leaders and our gods. But normally we can always choose the editions we play from. And even more importantly, we can choose to ignore or modify some of the things our “good” edition tells us to do, even if these suggestions come supposedly from the composer. Urtext editions are like good parents: good but never perfect. To purists, this sounds like sacrilege: how dare a simple instrumentalist consider that they can “improve” on the Urtext biblical transcripts of geniuses like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc!! But the reality is that, for all the reasons outlined above, it is in fact sometimes possible, even when having a maximum of respect for the composer, to make more sense out of their score by using our own best judgement to occasionally override some of the instructions that the Urtext edition gives us, even when that information comes directly and uncorruptedly from the composer’s manuscript.
I love what Jaqueline Du Pre said: “once the composer has written down his piece, it is MINE“. Is it any wonder that she was such a magnificent, emotional, heartfelt musician? She made each piece her own, used it as a vehicle to express her own emotions and did not treat a musical score as a rigid historical document, preserved and untouchable in a museum. Bravo! But beware: we are not talking about rewriting the music (changing the notes), just about the occasional possibility of decorating it (dressing it up) slightly differently.
See also the article “Freedom or Obedience?” in the Psychology section.