A History of the Publishing House Bärenreiter

1923: Inflation and depression, occupation of the Ruhr area (the main industrial district in Germany), workers’ revolts, Hitler’s march on the Feldherrenhalle “Field Marshals' Hall”, extremes everywhere.

It was clear to many people that this was a time crying out for change. But what kind of change? A dazzling array of ideas about which direction to take existed, but were totally incompatible.  Was this really a time to sing folk songs outdoors at one with nature? The Wandervögel, a country loving youth organisation and part of the Jugendmusikbewegung striving to preserve the German folk song, had been active for two decades and sought an answer in this “simple life”. Music accompanied their activities in the form of fiddles, guitars and naturally singing.

In that year of 1923, two people came together: the charismatic Professor Walther Hensel, founder of the Finkensteiner Bund (another part of the Jugendmusikbewegung) and the young bookseller’s assistant Karl Vötterle from Augsburg. At the first Finkenstein Singwoche at Mährisch Trübau in former Czechoslovakia, 86 participants came together to sing, make music and be together, living in modest conditions. To dismiss this as merely escaping from the world would be unjust. It was one of many alternatives to urban life which people were exploring.

The Finkensteiner Singbewegung (singing movement) which resulted from this meeting quickly grew in size and influence. And Karl Vötterle had his first flash of publishing inspiration: the members needed music, simple song sheets for their meetings. Back in his home city on the River Lech, he had the first Finkensteiner Blätter printed. He called his publishing house which was founded in his parents’ living room, Bärenreiter-Verlag.

But how did the name Bärenreiter come about? The tiny star which is part of the star sign The Great Bear is called “Bärenreiter” which means rider of the bear. This star symbolised the longing of the Wandervögel and so became the company imprint for the small publishing house. The first company imprint shows a small boy standing on a bear, reaching for a star. The bear symbolises the world, the star the unattainable goal and naturally the boy was Vötterle himself.

Vötterle registered his publishing house with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on his 21st birthday in 1924. It was clear to him that the publication of the little song sheets would not be the basis of a great future. He would only be successful if his catalogue of publications expanded to include “great” music. By the following year, madrigals by John Dowland and the first editions of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schütz were published.

Logo 1932
Logo 1934
Logo 1940

1927: The phrase Auf, du junger Wandersmann (Onwards, you young wayfarer) was very apt for the year of 1927. The publishing house and its founder bid farewell to Augsburg and moved to Kassel, where Vötterle’s future father-in-law provided him with a plot of land and the town council granted him a loan with the minimum of bureaucracy. This site has remained the headquarters of  Bärenreiter ever since. The publishing programme expanded rapidly: sacred and secular choral works, organ works by the old masters, other repertoire, periodicals and books, not only in the area of music, but also theological texts and titles in other subject areas.

By the time a collection of old German Christmas carols named Quempas was published, Bärenreiter enjoyed a highly recognised reputation.  The Quempas booklets have sold over three million copies since 1930. They are still in print today and churches still arrange “Quempas singing” during Advent.

1933 brought long-term changes to the publishing house and its founder. The Finkensteiner Bund was ‘brought into line’ with Nazi policies with scarcely any resistance. Still that very year, Karl Vötterle and his chief editor Richard Baum founded the Arbeitskreis für Hausmusik which organised the first Kasseler Musiktage, a festival for concerts, that autumn. The fact that this was intended to continue the work of the Finkensteiner at first escaped the Nazis’ attention. The new publications of these years show the typical ambivalence in the daily dealings with a dictatorial system and increasingly assumed the character of a dangerous balancing act.

Vötterle was reproached for his commitment to old and new church music, with which Hugo Distler was also involved as an outstanding exponent. An article in the periodical Der Sonntagsbrief in 1935, which argued against the Nazis’ euthanasia programme, almost led to the closure of the publishing house. The ban announced earlier was rescinded because Vötterle found an advocate in the highest places in Berlin. The theological publishing programme was “outsourced” and transferred to the Johannes-Stauda-Verlag, whose manager Paul Gümbel continued the work according to Vötterle’s principles.

The publishing house survived the catastrophic night of bombing in October 1943 which almost completely destroyed Kassel: it was the last attacks on Kassel in January and March 1945 which were to destroy the company’s buildings including stock, manuscripts and the archive. 

Logo 1940s

1945: Directly after the end of the war, reconstruction began.The employees rebuilt their publishing house with their own hands, sometimes under hazardous conditions. Already in 1946 the publishing licence was granted anew and the first printing presses began to roll soon after. When the continued existence of the publishing house was assured, the “major undertakings”, as Vötterle referred to them, could be started.

One has to remember that due to the war, Germany had suffered a complete breakdown not only politically and economically but also intellectually. Leading intellectuals, artists, composers, musicologists had been persecuted, their works had been banned and destroyed; many of them left the country.
As a result, there was a tremendous need to go back to heritage, put together again the pieces, to collect and restore. In musicology this meant a desire to reassess the complete repertoire of great composers and to publish their works in definitive editions, true to the composer’s intentions.

It was Vötterle’s pioneering idea to start publishing a new generation of scholarly-critical Complete Editions. Special music institutes were set up to do research and to edit the various Complete Editions. Musicologists from all over the world are involved in these immense projects.

With Christoph Willibald Gluck: Complete Works (from 1951), Georg Philipp Telemann: Musical Works (from 1953), the New Bach Edition (1954 to 2007), New Mozart Edition (1955 to 2007), Halle Handel Edition (from 1955), New Schütz Edition (from 1955), New Schubert Edition (from 1964) and New Berlioz Edition (1967 to 2006), music editions of a high editorial standard, ideal for scholars as well as musicians were made available. Further editions (Franz Berwald, Niels Wilhelm Gade, Leoš Janáček, Orlando di Lasso, Leonhard Lechner, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gioachino Rossini and Gabriel Fauré) have commenced. All of these complete edition volumes as well as the corresponding performing editions have contributed greatly towards Bärenreiter becoming an internationally recognised publishing house.

On par with the Complete Editions, Bärenreiter also acquired international acclaim with the publication of the first MGG, the music encyclopaedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. After extensive preparatory work, the first volume was despatched to subscribers in June 1949. Because of the enormous increase in subject matter, the encyclopedia had to be expanded several times before it was completed in 1987 after the publication of 17 volumes.

The end of the war, when the political barriers in the arts fell, presented Bärenreiter with the possibility to give greater prominence to contemporary music. The number of first performances of works published by the company increased. The following major composers  and works are significant representatives of the overall Bärenreiter contemporary publishing programme: Ernst Krenek: Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (1958), Bohuslav Martinů: Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola und Orchester (1953), Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1966), Klaus Huber: Soliloquia. Oratorio (1962/1964), Sofia Gubaidulina, Paul-Heinz Dittrich and Marek Kopelent: Laudatio pacis (1975/1993), Manfred Trojahn: Lieder auf der Flucht (1989), Matthias Pintscher: Thomas Chatterton (1998) and Beat Furrer: FAMA (2005).

From the 1950s, Bärenreiter showed signs of expansion, reflected by takeovers and the founding of new subsidiaries. The companies which found a continued existence and new horizons under the umbrella of the growing Bärenreiter publishing group included Nagels-Verlag (1952), Alkor-Edition (formerly Bruckner-Verlag, 1955), Gustav Bosse Verlag (1957) and Henschel Musik (1991). Subsidiaries abroad included Basel, founded in 1944 as a possible alternative location to the main office in Germany, New York (1958), Paris (1962, located in Tours from 1971–1980) and London (1963). Bärenreiter Praha (BP) followed in 1998. After a laborious privatisation process, this music publisher was separated from the former Czech state publisher Supraphon. Today, there are 25 employees in Prague, working mainly on the rich heritage of Czech music. In addition, BP serves as Bärenreiter’s sales and marketing office for the Eastern European countries.

The music book programme continued to expand. It now included not only specialised areas of musicology but also text books, reference works, biographies and introductions to classical works of music aimed at a broader readership. Last but not least Bärenreiter ventured into the publication of the second edition of its music encyclopaedia, the MGG. The 29-volume work which includes articles reflecting the latest scholarly research not only on classical music but on all areas of music was published between 1994 and 2008.

Logo 1987
Logo 2010

1975: 1975 saw the death of Karl Vötterle who had directed his publishing house for over 52 years. His daughter Barbara Scheuch-Vötterle and her husband Leonhard Scheuch succeeded him and continued to build upon the company’s already high international reputation. That Bärenreiter remains to be family-owned is unique among large publishing houses. Despite its established market position, there was no shortage of challenges, one of which was a concentration on the core activities of the publishing house. All areas of the publishing programme which were not music-related were given up or sold. The company’s own printing works was closed.

New goals in recent years have included the expansion of the music publishing programme. Well into the 1990s, the focus was overwhelmingly geared towards composers from the Bärenreiter Complete Editions and the Urtext practical performing editions which derived from them. Now the tendency is to offer the widest possible range of works from the classical-romantic repertoire right up to the early 20th century.  Bach, Mozart and Handel have been joined, for example, by Beethoven, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy, Elgar, Ravel, Skriabin and many others.

In recent years, there has also been an even greater focus on contemporary music. With composers such as Dieter Ammann, Beat Furrer, Matthias Pintscher, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Charlotte Seither, Miroslav Srnka, Manfred Trojahn and others, a whole range of successful artists belong to the Bärenreiter stable of composers. And so, Bärenreiter has fulfilled its commitment over many decades to publish and promote not only music from the past, but also music from the present day.


Karl Vötterle: Haus unterm Stern. Ein Verleger erzählt. 4. Auflage. Bärenreiter-Verlag 1969.

Friedhelm Brusniak: Zu den Anfängen des Bärenreiter-Verlages 1923/1924. In: Musikkultur heute. Bärenreiter-Verlag 1998. pp. 157–160.

Sven Hiemke: „Folgerichtiges Weiterschreiten“. Der Bärenreiter-Verlag im „Dritten Reich“. In: Musikkultur heute. pp. 161–170.

Dietrich Berke: „Die Stunde der Gesamtausgabe“ – nachgefragt. In: Musikkultur heute. pp. 171–179.