Scores and Editions 101
Part One: What's an Urtext?
Customer: “Hi, I’m looking for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.”
Me: “Ok, do you want the Henle Edition, Peters, Wiener Urtext, Schenker, ABRSM, Alfred, Schirmer…or something else entirely?”
Customer, somewhat befuddled: “The normal one?”
I go through this exchange at least once a week with this specific piece, and it underlines one of the most confusing aspects of classical music. Which edition should I buy? Often parents coming in to buy music for their kids or people just getting started playing “serious” repertoire aren’t even aware that there are different editions, or that which edition you use matters.
Over the next few days, I’ll be using this space to explain some of the issues you should consider when choosing what edition of a piece to purchase. To start us off, here’s some information on Urtext editions.
When and if you think of Urtext editions, you likely picture “the blue ones” (referring to Henle Verlag), but there are many other leading publishers of Urtext editions floating around. These four are the most important publishers of Urtext editions. From left to right, Henle, Barenreiter, Peters, and Wiener Urtext.
So, what is an Urtext edition? Literally, this German word translates to “original text.” These editions strive to recreate the composer’s original text and original intentions as closely as possible while providing a useable performing edition. “Original text” is a goal, not necessarily a reality represented by an edition labeled Urtext. The only true Urtext is the composer’s original score. Even then, there are complications and contradictions when composers produced various different drafts of a work, leading to endless debate over which is the One True Version. (I’m looking at you, Bruckner symphonies!)
However, saying that these editions are “not edited” or “free of editorial markings” is incorrect. By definition, every edition requires an editor. A good edition labeled Urtext involves extensive editing done by a highly skilled musicologist and/or performer. Preparing an Urtext edition involves pouring over a variety of documents - early editions of the work, performer’s parts, drafts or copies in the composer’s handwriting, and any other sources that may be available for a given piece. The editor or editorial team compiles all this (often contradictory!) information and makes an informed judgment on which variances in notation, articulation, dynamics, fingerings, or any other markings to include in the final edition. A good Urtext edition includes extensive notes explaining the editorial practices used in the production of the score in the front or back of the work.
As these type of editions have grown in popularity, the word Urtext has been bandied about by publishers quite a lot - to the point where in some cases it’s more a marketing tool than anything else. Just because an edition is labeled Urtext does not mean that it is the ultimate authority, or that it is the best edition of a composer’s works for your purposes. The needs of a beginning student are very different from the needs of a professional soloist.
Long story short, each edition should be judged on its own merits, not on what the publisher has chosen to label it.
Check back this week for hints on when to use Urtext editions, and comparisons between different publications!