Take an old dictionary from your shelves, look up urtext, and you may have a surprise. My own copy of The World of Music, a large, well-written dictionary published in 1954, has no entry for urtext within its 1100 pages. Neither does its middle-aged neighbour in my collection, the Oxford Companion to Music, dated 1955. The reason, according to a brochure recently prepared by the publishers Henle, of Munich, is that the term urtext didn't appear at all until after the Second World War:
"Günter Henle... in 1948... decided to found his publishing house with the sole object of presenting musical editions of the great masters that at last offered the correct text, as sanctioned by the composer. In his quest for an appropriate name to convey the distinguishing feature of his editions, Henle lit upon the term urtext - 'original text' - in several earlier critical editions. It soon transpired that Henle's idea of a modern urtext edition was a bold and far-reaching decision that left an indelible mark on the world of music publishing. Today almost every serious publisher of classical music employs the term urtext as a seal of commendation. Yet often enough the term is very loosely applied, being neither protected by copyright nor clearly defined in its methodology."
In everyday German the prefix Ur is traditionally used with names for relatives, where 'great' would be used in English, as in Urgroßutter (great-grandmother) or Urenkel (great-grandson). In recent times the prefix Ur has been used to create many new German words: Urfad means 'very boring', and Urgeil and Urcool both mean super, or very nice. We don't use a capital letter for common nouns in English unless they start a sentence or are part of a title so, although in German I would write Urtext, here I will use urtext.
So what exactly is an urtext? The prefix ur refers to the original condition of something. Relevant to written music, urtext simply means original text. Dr. Jochen Reutter, Senior Editor, Wiener Urtext Edition, explains that for musicians the main advantage of an urtext edition is to have the most reliable musical text of a composition, a text which is based on original sources. "Such a text comes as close as is possible to the composer's intentions," he says. Original sources for an urtext include the manuscript written in the composer's hand (the autograph), copies made by the composer's students and assistants, the first published edition, and other early editions. As first editions often include misprints, a prime source for an urtext edition is therefore the copy of the first edition which was subsequently hand-corrected by the composer. For instance, Clifford Bartlett has described how Handel's autograph manuscript of Messiah was not convenient for use at performance, so a neater score was prepared by a copyist: "It was this that Handel used subsequently. So changes were marked in the copyist's score, not the autograph. Even before the first performance, there may have been changes of cast involving alterations in the music. When the work was revived later, the singers were usually different, so more changes were needed. Every year in which Handel performed Messiah there were differences." Thus, there is no authoritative version of Messiah. All an editor can do is consult the sources and present the options.
Reutter points out that urtext editions of Schönberg, Hindemith and Widor are revised original editions based on the sources licensed by the original publishers Schott and Universal Edition. "Because Schott and Universal Edition are 'parents' of the Wiener Urtext Edition it is not too problematic," he says. "But if we wished to publish urtext editions of compositions published by other publishing houses we would have to pay immense licence fees - even if those publishers gave us permission. That's the problem for each publisher planning to publish contemporary music as urtext editions. In many cases there is another general problem: to get to the sources. The most important sources, such as autograph manuscripts or engraver's copies, are often in possession of the original publishers. They don't allow others to have a look at them." In works where the sources are few, or misprint-ridden, or conflicting, the task of the urtext editor becomes difficult. Cases where the composer had bad penmanship (for example, Beethoven), or revised the work after publication (Mahler), create further difficulties.
Alongside the urtext, facsimile and interpretive editions also exist. A facsimile edition is simply a photographic version, a photocopy, of the composer's manuscript. An interpretive edition, which gives an editor's expert opinion on how to perform the work, may include dynamics and other marks of expression. Sometimes these will differ from those of the composer. Some interpretive editions have intentionally altered or deleted the composer's notes. From the 19th century onwards Harold Bauer, Artur Schnabel and Ignacy Jan Paderewski were among those musicians who edited interpretive editions. A further development is the compromise edition, an intermediate state between conflicting alternatives of urtext and interpretive editions, the additions being distinguished from the composer's own markings perhaps by font size or use of greyscale or footnotes. Some composers added to the confusion, in a manner that was almost wilful: "Believe it or not, we are doing a new Chopin edition," says Ian Flint of Peters Edition. "It is extraordinary to note that after 150 years there is actually room for a new edition. Chopin is a classic example. He has even written the same piece in three different versions and sent it off on the same day to three different publishers!"
Because the fidelity with which a printed edition can represent a composer's intentions is variable, never absolute, the term urtext is already falling from favour among some critics and scholars. Now, the ideal of urtext is being perceived as being beyond what any edition can accomplish. The scholarly view is still shifting. In an excellent recent essay, Christopher Hogwood reviewed changing attitudes over the last thirty years:
"It is important for 'early' musicians to remember that we can never be the past; the significance of what we do depends on the fact that performing is present-tense - although much of our repertoire carries its past with it like DNA. to be ferreted out and acknowledged. Thirty years ago the buzz words of people doing this ferreting were 'authentic', 'original instruments', 'as-Bach-would-have-heard-it', and so on. Then Andrew Porter devised HIP ('Historically Informed Performance') as a more useful terminology that opened such pursuits to all musicians with a sympathetic mind-set, not simply the 'antiquarians' (of whom I was one!). Some people, misunderstanding the problem, asked why we did not dress in original costumes; one famous conductor even insinuated that we must prefer seventeenth-century plumbing and sanitation. But HIP is not a charade, it is always a modern event that calls for your curiosity and constant questioning."
Hogwood urges that this curiosity means that we ask about early rehearsal methods, or query the layout of a Baroque orchestra or the etiquette for accommodating extempore cadenzas in an aria. He warns that we may have to 'consult history direct', to discover how musicians rehearsed without bar numbers and pencils and bowing marks, and to find out when was the first time a conductor interposed himself between soloist and orchestra in a concerto. He suggests that we look at paintings of keyboard instruments being played with their lids closed, or three musicians sharing a part, or horn players holding their instruments vertically. "They were not painted by Martians, they are eyewitness accounts," he says.
Will the widespread use of music writing software remove the need for Urtext from now on? Ian Flint thinks that the demand will remain. "Just as the aim of an eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth-century edition would be to synthesise all of those different versions and present the alternatives within the edition, our composers in the computer age will change their minds and revise things. Rather than having seven printed or tatty manuscript copies of nineteenth-century pieces of music to go on, the editor looking back at this particular era in the future will have three or four score files - providing that the electronic media will retain access to it.
"In that sense, nothing's changed," says Flint. "After all, when a composer is working on something now to bring to the first performance, he makes corrections in the weeks leading up to that. In just the same way, Beethoven would have added yet another layer of crossings out three or four days before its first performance! So the electronic methodology actually brings nothing particularly different to the concept of an urtext edition."