Musicologists pore over and argue about the minutiae of musical scores. Partisans of so-called historically informed performance practice debate original instruments (and voices) in world conferences. Scholarly editions, the fruit of some of these debates, are produced.
Let’s try to examine some myths.
No, Virginia, there is no such thing as an Urtext, at least not one you can buy at your local music store. If you can find a local music store.
The prefix “Ur-” means first, original, or primary. The only true Urtext is (possibly) the composer’s autograph. Sometimes I think it’s the thought in the composer’s head. Some folks think the first edition (if it came out during the composer’s life and was overseen or corrected by him) is also authoritative. Each step you take farther from that is . . .
By the time you buy it, that music has been through panels of editors, each one a major scholar in his or her field, usually highly opinionated, with plenty of information to back up their choices.
Pianists, when you get that Bach Well-Tempered Clavier from good old G. Henle, in its sober slate-blue covers, it has fingering! That fingering didn’t come from J.S. Bach, but from some respected German piano pedagogue who “knows what’s best” for the majority of pianists. Some “Urtexts” even use celebrity pianist/editors who are famous for the particular composer, such as Andras Schiff (the newest Bach from Henle) and the late, great Claudio Arrau (a Beethoven sonata set from Edition Peters).
None of us relish the prospect of learning or performing music from illegible, ink-stained manuscripts, like those routinely produced by Beethoven. Even early editions are hard for us to read, with their different note shapes and page spacing issues. Thus, the “performing edition,” which is misleadingly marketed as “Urtext.”
So far, we haven’t even covered many of the controversial issues surrounding the creation of a reliable musical text! I won’t be able to in the limited space of the blog. But one more thing I couldn’t leave unmentioned is the matter of mistakes, of which Urtexts are full. I’m not talking about variant readings of a passage. I’m talking about typos, wrong notes, the very thing you got yelled at about in conservatory. Just because it says Urtext doesn’t mean you don’t have to check. Trust but verify, as the old nuclear arms slogan went.
PS: In future blog posts, I hope to cover additional issues on the subject of “authenticity.”
PPS: Just yesterday, while rehearsing with my trio, the cellist and I were eager to reveal our deep understanding of the slow movement (Adagio ma non troppo) of a Haydn piano trio that none of us had played previously (there are 45 of them, after all!). The violinist kept asking why we were going so slowly. Turns out her violin part (G. Henle “Urtext”) had the temp as “Allegro ma non troppo”!) I rest my case.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs