What is an Urtext?

adagio.jpgThe more observant musician will have seen this word appearing more and more regularly on their purchased scores in the last, well, 50 years. It now appears that a publisher cannot sell anything without the word appended to the front cover. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of sympathy for publishers at the moment. With everything imaginable free on the internet on the amazing IMSLP, it is clearly much harder for them to make money. What I object to is the blatant use of the term to misrepresent their product.

I asked this question on my facebook page recently. Amid the flurry of puns (thanks to Friend J. for “A hesitant message from a mobile phone?”) the debate soon descended into philosophical musings on the meaning of authenticity, so I thought I had better move it over here – before all my friends, virtual or otherwise, who don’t demonstrate musical nerdish-ness, started shunning me, virtually or otherwise.

My starting point was the accidental, and very galling, purchase of Rode’s Caprices in a transposition for Viola. I was sucked in by the word “urtext” and didn’t look closely enough!  They were written for Violin, so how can a Viola edition be an urtext? There is an excellent first edition, which is the best source available, on IMSLP. This has, what I presume, are Rode’s fingerings and bowings, at the very least they are contemporary. The  so called “Urtext” that I bought changes a lot of fingering and bowing, the introduction says to make them more “up to date”, without letting us know which ones. How is this in any sense, an Urtext?

The standard concept of an urtext is, as Friend P. commented “the final version of the score that the composer would have printed out on Sibelius.” The usual experience though is that it “Contains all the mistakes written by quill and done by candlelight. Contains none of the subsequent corrections and clarifications that the musicians needed to add” (Another friend J.) A valiant attempt to clarify things arrived in the form of Friend O. (Oliver Webber – actual person I have met!) “Urtext is a very 20th Century concept I think – when the idea that there was a definitive version of every piece, like some kind of ideal Platonic Form, was very appealing. However I think in most cases it would have been a surprise to the composers.” He goes on to give the the example of Haydn’s Creation, in which there are “so many different versions, from chamber to 300-strong, all of which received some kind of approval from the composer, so that the idea of an “Urtext” is pretty much impossible to apply.”

In a later post Oliver gave an insight into the way in which even some apparently good Urtext editions are beset with all sorts of problems: “Here’s a quote from Alfred Duerr from the preface to the Baerenreiter study score of the St Matthew Passion: “The indications of articulation, and in particular the slurs in the original sources, are frequently so contradictory and ambiguous that no new edition can claim to have interpreted Bach’s intentions correctly. In order to achieve some degree of consistency the editor of the present edition often found himself obliged [sic!] to impose some kind of uniformity (naturally exercising the utmost caution) on the signs of articulation found in the sources.*” (my emphasis). The attitude speaks for itself, but it’s worth mentioning a couple of things:

  1. The tacit assumption that “consistency” and “uniformity” are unquestionably desirable or even essential.
  2. If you look at the MS sources (now happily available free online at bach.de), Mr Duerr’s decisions show a clear bias to increasing the length of any “ambiguous” slurs. “Mache dich” is a classic example – the MS slurs are not really ambiguous, those eg in bar 6 in the bass and similar places are pretty clearly all 2, not 3, quavers long, yet they are all rendered as 3 in the “Urtext” edition. I mention this as it makes a profound difference to the sound and feel of the aria – the shorter slurs give a much more dance-like, elegant result, in my view much more fitting, though that’s not the point: the point is that “Urtext” is indeed not always what it seems!

So what are we, working and studying musicians suppose to do? What notes, articulations and dynamics should we be tempting to reproduce? There really isn’t time to consider things from scratch every time we study a new work, surely? The solution lies in understanding the process, that Oliver has so concisely exposed. It is all a compromise, but we must understand the compromise that is being made.

We know that when it comes to phrasing, for example, there is no definitive performance. An honest musician will be constantly striving for different effects, for clearer shapes, and yet simultaneously know that there are other solutions. We have to be comfortable with imperfection, but we never stop striving to eliminate it. So it should be with the sources. I am still surprised by the number of musicians who use these philosophical difficulties as an excuse never to consider how some later editions have completely changed the character of the music.

It doesn’t help that publishers blatantly misuse the term in order to increase sales or give the appearance of greater authority to their work. Some have, as Oliver said “successfully created a market presence as the authority when it comes to “Urtext”, which performers (including me until recently!) trust and rely on.”

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