Editors on Urtext

Why do we need an urtext edition?

Well, you do want to play the notes the composer wrote, don’t you, and not some random wrong notes that just slipped in by mistake?

So is that all an Urtext Edition is, simply “the notes the composer wrote”?

No, it isn’t as simple as that. You see, it often happens that the composer has second thoughts. He changes his mind – but his manuscript has already gone to the printer! So what is he to do? He asks the publisher for a proof copy to correct, and he writes his latest thoughts in there. So we look at the printed first edition, and it has something completely different from what’s in the composer’s manuscript – that almost certainly points to a revision by the composer in the final proofs.

It is true that there is still quite a lot still to be discovered from the composer`s manuscript; editors so often make their editions from bad photocopies in which a grain in the paper or a stitch-hole looks exactly like a staccato mark. And it sometimes even happens that you look at a photocopy printed out from microfilm, and the note is F – but you look at the original, and behold, the note is absolutely clearly G. No one can quite explain how this happens, but it happens; and this means that for those editors who go to the trouble of working from the original manuscript, the are still discoveries to be made.

So how would you define an Urtext Edition?

An edition which thoroughly and exhaustively examines all the source material in order to present that text which, using all the expertise of which you are capable, comes as near as possible to the composer’s final intentions.

What is meant by “source material”?

Anything over which the composer had some control. So: not merely his original manuscript, but also any copyist’s scores which he may have corrected, first editions of which he is known to have corrected the proofs, letters to the publishers which may discuss the work, everything that has any relevance, over which the composer had some influence. Sometimes it can actually mean even more than that: take for example a set of manuscript parts which the composer used for performance, and told the orchestra what corrections to make. So the players all put those corrections, from the composers mouth, into their parts. Now those parts are used as model for the printed first edition parts. The manuscript parts are then thrown away – all we have is the printed first edition parts! – but because they derive from crucially important manuscript parts which the composer corrected in rehearsal, those first edition parts are an essential authentic source.

Why do we need new editions?

One clear reason is that a manuscript, thought lost, comes to light. This is especially the case for many works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn, whose autographs were in the library in Berlin, then during the war stored in safe places, but unfortunately after all the turmoil of the war no one could remember where they were. So all these manuscripts were thought lost until 1977 when they surfaced in Poland. But meanwhile, very many supposedly authoritative editions had been published. Now they all have to be done again!

And then the auction houses are proud to ensure that we do not forget: some manuscripts are in private hands, so that scholars cannot study them. Often it happens that a manuscript comes up for auction, and then, if we are lucky, we may get to view it briefly. If we are even luckier, it may be bought by a public institution, and is then available for scholars to study. Then, of course, it can be used for the next edition.
Another reason why older editions, even “Urtexts”, are replaced by new ones is that, sad to say, not all editors are as good at their job as each other. They make mistakes; they make idiotic deductions which any musician can see were wrong; they simply overlook things which, if you look carefully at the manuscript, are quite clear; and they decide that this or that source was not worth looking at, when another editor can tell you exactly why, on the contrary, it is of essential importance. So another editor comes along, shows up all the mistakes and editorial errors of the previous edition (or editions) and with luck, proves his point, that his edition is worth having instead of the previous ones which were guilty of mistakes, misjudgements and oversights.

What can musicians gain from Urtext Editions?

Well, I´m sorry to say that it depends on which Urtext Edition it is. Some are so badly done, with so little understanding of the music or of the tradition into which the music was written, that they are actually damaging and harmful; the original edition was actually better. Yes it may have had mistakes, but at least you could tell that here is an obvious mistake, and you just correct it. But if a misguided scholar tells you in the commentary that he knows the note is A in the first edition, but this is “obviously” a mistake for G, the poor musician will probably be intimidated by the weight of (apparent) authority, into playing G, when actually the composer may have meant A, unexpected though this note may have (to the editor) seemed.
But with luck the Urtext Edition will at least have a commentary. Some Urtext Editions don`t even give you that; you are supposed to trust the scholar to have impeccable judgement and also to be an excellent proof-reader, so that any wrong note (which is actually simply a misprint) is supposed to be taken on trust to be the new authentic note. This of course demands a leap of faith which is often quite unfounded and unwarranted.

So, the least the customer should expect, before shelling out good money for a new Urtext Edition, is that there is a commentary explaining the editor`s decisions. If there is, it is then impossible to generalize (i. e. as to whether the edition is good or not); the only hope is to ask other musicians if they have had experience of editions of this composer with that publisher, and do they seem plausible? If that is too difficult, then one can only advise that an Urtext Edition should have looked at the sources carefully, done its homework responsibly, and given you an accurate text, correcting the mistakes in the old editions. With luck, you may lind that it has. At the very least, it will be clearly legible and be on good, robust modern paper so that you can rub out bowings and fingerings without making a hole in the paper.


Jonathan Del Mar (b. 1951) is an English conductor and musicologist. His edition of the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven published by Bärenreiter-Verlag (1996–2000) caused a sensation. Many of the world’s leading conductors now use these editions. Del Mar has gone on to create Urtext editions of many other works by Beethoven for Bärenreiter: concertos, cello works, string quartets, piano sonatas, as well as Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and 7th, 8th and 9th Symphony, and the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar.

The term “Urtext”, what does it mean to you?

Schulze: For me, Urtext means very carefully created editions based on the latest scholarly discoveries, editions which can serve as the perfect basis for marvellous performances of works. It is the link between scholarship and practice which is always important.

Can the “Urtext” not simply be found in the composer’s manuscript?

A manuscript contains an “Urtext” only in the very rarest cases. The musical notation was subject to a great many contemporary conventions which formed the basis for a manuscript, but which can often only be deciphered with difficulty by later users. As well as this, there is often no manuscript by the composer, or any copy which is available is defective or unclear.

But there are numerous editions of great works from the history of music. Why do we constantly need new editions?

An edition is the translating of a music text into a contemporary musical language. Things which were unstated and self-evident at the time when the composition was created have fallen into oblivion and require interpretation. Over the course of time other aspects have come into focus, and editions need to be adapted to this change. And finally there are also constant new discoveries and interpretations of material which is already well-known.

What do musicians gain from Urtext editions?

In the same way that musicologists benefit from musicians’ knowledge, musicians can likewise benefit from musicologists’ knowledge. In critical editions this knowledge flows directly into the music text. Musicians therefore have a music text which is based on the most careful research, with a critical apparatus which attempts to answer possible questions about the content, and which includes a version of the work which truly incorporates all the surviving sources. The result is a performance practice which allows for a greater variety and reflection.


Hendrik Schulze is Associate Professor of Music History at the University of North Texas. In the past, he has held positions at the universities of Salzburg and Heidelberg, as well as at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of two books, Odysseus in Venedig (2004) on choice of subject and character depiction in seventeenth-century Venetian opera, and Französischer Tanz und Tanzmusik in Europa zur Zeit Ludwigs XIV. (2012) on the meanings ascribed to French baroque dance and dance music throughout Europe during the age of Louis XIV. He published numerous articles on issues of Italian baroque opera and instrumental music as well as on French baroque dance. Together with students from the University of North Texas, he has edited Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 which was published by Bärenreiter in 2013; an edition of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea, again prepared together with students from UNT, is forthcoming from the same publisher. With his wife Sara Elisa Stangalino he edited Cavalli’s opera Artemisia for Bärenreiter (published in 2013) and is currently preparing an edition of Cavalli’s Xerse, scheduled to appear next year. He is working on a book project on “Aristotelianism in Venetian Opera”.

Editors on Bärenreiter UrtextThe term “Urtext”, what does it mean to you?

An “Urtext” edition represents absolute reliability – particularly for musicians who play from one of these editions, but also for scholars and research. As well as this, anyone who wants to track the philological genesis of such an edition can follow this by using the critical apparatus.

Can the “Urtext” not simply be found in the composer’s manuscript?

This might be the case with contemporary music, but it is certainly not the case with music before 1950. Apart from (often very revealing) sketches and early versions which originated before the creation of the fair copy of a valid working manuscript, the journey from this starting point to a first edition is often so complex that only a thorough comparison of all available sources can provide information about the composer’s intentions. In addition, early editions were very much less meticulous and reliable than those we use today.

But there are numerous editions of great works from the history of music. Why do we constantly need new editions?

Loosely quoting Gustav Mahler’s remark that “tradition” is often only “sloppiness”, publishers have often made do by reprinting their old editions – including all the mistakes! And even when modern new editions are published, these were and are often simply unaltered reprints, as the cost of creating a historical-critical edition would be far too great. Only with a historical-critical “Urtext” edition – as, for example, the great complete editions which Bärenreiter publishes – is a reliable reading of the work guaranteed, which then really requires no other editions of the work in question.

What do musicians gain from Urtext editions?

Practical experience reveals that musicians mostly rely uncritically on the music text, practising and rehearsing from it. When they work with an “Urtext” edition, they can be certain that they are using a text in the form the composer intended. Above all, in a time of “fake news” (and “fake notes” ...), a source of this kind is simply indispensable!


Michael Stegemann – born in 1956 in Osnabrück. Studied (composition, musicology, Romance languages and literature, philosophy and art history) in Münster and Paris, including master classes with Olivier Messiaen. In his work he has specialized in the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Mozart and Schubert, and Russian and French music. Radio dramas, programme series and presentation work for different departments of the ARD. German Audio Book Prize (2008) for The Glenn Gould Trilogy. Recent books include Franz Liszt – Genie im Abseits (Piper, Munich 2011). Since 2002, Professor of Historical Musicology at the TU Dortmund. In 2016 Michael Stegemann became Editorial Director of the 36-volume edition of the Œuvres instrumentales complètes of Camille Saint-Saëns published by Bärenreiter-Verlag.