by Kevin Harper
We’ve all seen the term “Urtext Edition” when shopping for sheet music. But what does that mean? How is it different from other sheet music? Let’s begin with the definition of “Urtext”.
Germans famously love to combine separate words into one long word. In this case, we have the German words Ur and Text. The oldest city in the world was the city of Ur in modern-day Iraq. This word became part of the German language, meaning original, ancient, or great. For example, Great-grandfather in German is Urgrossvater. Germans use Ur to describe something that is not only very old, but also respected and distinguished.
The meaning of Text in German is easy to figure out. It is a cognate of our English word, which means they have the same definition.
So we’ve established what the word Urtext means, but what in the world does it have to do with music? Publishers use the term to refer to old editions of music, particularly those that have the music written in the hand of the composer, or with annotations and guidelines in the composer’s own words.
Urtexts have become increasingly respected and sought after since the Period Instruments Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. During this time, numerous orchestras were founded in which members played original instruments. Their purpose was to play music as it would have sounded in the time it was written. That’s right! While Pierre Boulez was in Central Park experimenting with wild avant-garde music, others were playing hurdy-gurdys and serpents, two very old instruments!
Due to the diligence and hard work of those pioneers, publishers were left with a wealth of information on authenticity and performance practice. There was also now a market for this kind of stuff! So, they began publishing these as alternate editions, eventually dubbing them “Urtext Editions” to distinguish them from the edited versions, which are more common.
This inspires the question, “Why do there need to be different versions of one piece of music?” Composers’ music was highly edited and altered to conform to the limitations of the orchestra, or even the limitations of the printing press itself. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography:
Although publishers sought out Beethoven and he was an able manager of his own business affairs, he was at the mercy of the crooked publishing practices of his time. Publishers paid a fee to composers for rights to their works, but there was no system of copyrights…or royalties…at the time. As each new work appeared, Beethoven sold it to one or more of the best and most reliable publishers. But this initial payment was all he would receive, and both he and his publisher had to contend with rival publishers who brought out editions of their own. As a result Beethoven saw his works published in many different versions that were unauthorized, unchecked, and often inaccurate. Several times during his life in Vienna Beethoven started plans for a complete, authorized edition of his works, but these plans were never realized.
We see fewer Urtext Editions for music composed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, because technology and the printing press had improved and copyright laws came into existence. The greatest need for Urtext Editions is for music from the Baroque and Classical periods, when publishing companies often violated composers’ rights. While these editions are meant to represent the closest version of the composers’ original intentions, it is difficult for historians to know if they are completely accurate due to poor print quality or the composers’ or copywriters’ ineligible handwriting.
Even Anton Bruckner’s symphonies exist in multiple editions, edited by Bruckner himself. Often he would ask a friend what they thought of his symphonies, and would happily add whatever changes they recommended. Or, his publishers would publish an altered version without telling him. Thus, there is no definitive edition of many of Bruckner’s symphonies; they are classified by the year of the edition, i.e. Symphony 5: the original version, 1978 version, and the ‘revised’ edition of 1892-1894. (Bruckner had very little say in the last edition.) His Symphony No. 4 has six different editions!
That said, Urtext Editions are by no means the one valid Urtext of any given work. Very often, the publisher must choose between multiple Urtext editions to publish, or try to combine them. There are several publishers who specialize in Urtext Editions, including:
We cannot rely on Urtext as the be-all end-all of a composer’s vision. However it can lend great understanding to what the composer’s intentions were. Often the process is lengthy and painstaking – determining what is authentic, writing the text footnotes, checking accuracy. Why do they do this if it’s so much work? It’s for the love of music and the quest to better understand what the composer meant. The more we understand about the music’s history and composition, the more we understand our own music in the present. And while many of the most popular pieces may be over-played, it gives them a new light and new perspective.