Edition Peters: Reflecting the Composer’s Intentions and the Value of Urtext

Guest post by Linda Hawken, MD of Edition Peters Europe, and Kathryn Knight, President of C.F. Peters, USA

Being a music publisher in the 21st century presents many different challenges to those faced by publishers at the beginning of the industry 200 years ago. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at Edition Peters, founded in Leipzig in 1800 – a time when the idea of music copyright was only just starting to be thought about, with no laws in place to protect the composer. Instead, a successful publishing relationship depended solely on a close and ongoing collaboration with the composer.

Edition Peters’ unique history tells one of the most extraordinary stories of the music-publishing world.  The roster of composers with whom Edition Peters worked directly across the 19th century is dizzying, from Beethoven to Grieg and Mahler.

Edition Peters created the first editions of some of the most famous compositions of all time, with those editions being proofread and corrected by the composers themselves long before the concept of “Urtext” was conceived. Yet despite the provenance of these important editions, it became fashionable in the later 20th century to disregard them – and the unique value of the composer’s direct input – in favor of Urtext “interpretations” by musicologists.

The concept of the Urtext only emerged in the early 1930s, devised by musicologists who aimed to get closer to “the composer’s intentions” by reviewing multiple sources. Indeed it was Edition Peters who released one of the very first Urtext editions with its 1933 edition of J. S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias. After the Second World War, other publishers took on this concept, producing their own Urtext editions. However, this led to much confusion about the meaning and significance of the editions, and whether they reflected the composer’s true intentions.

The fact is there can never be one truly definitive version of a work by a composer if the edition is produced after their lifetime. An Urtext edition is always going to be an interpretation of the sources by specialist musicologists and the publishing house concerned. This means that any Urtext of the same work by different publishing houses will reach different conclusions as to how it should be presented, despite the fact they will usually all have reviewed the same sets of sources: facsimiles, multiple historic editions, publishers’ proofs and correspondence. This is what makes music publishing such an amazingly rich source of information for performers. Learning to study and interpret a critical commentary is a crucial part of a serious musician’s training and development: these seemingly dry sections of the Urtext edition are in fact the most valuable component of the edition’s offering, and can be an exciting starting point of discovery leading to the performer’s own individual interpretation of the work.

At Edition Peters, we are committed to renewing older editions only when new sources come to light and when musicologists approach us with a proposal that will reveal important information not previously shared or discovered. A great example of imaginative Urtext publishing was the release of our Ravel edition in the late 1980s. Here Roger Nichols, the world’s leading expert on Ravel, not only used facsimiles, first proofs and first editions, but also used piano rolls and early recordings to inform this ground-breaking edition and set new standards of Urtext scholarship in French music.

Edition Peters’ flagship series, The Complete Chopin: A New Critical Edition, has been running for over 25 years. We have produced only 6 volumes in that time, due to the complexity of source material and the commitment of the peerless editorial board of Chopin specialists to release the most helpful edition for pianists, enabling the performers themselves to make their own informed choices on interpretation based on the myriad sources available.

We are delighted that the next volume in the series, the beautiful Trois Nouvelles Études, will be published in early 2021 and available at Sheet Music Plus.

Edition Peters’ commitment to the great composers from Leipzig has been another feature, with the Urtext Schumann edition by leading Schumann scholar Hans Joachim Köhler being a prime example.

Forthcoming projects such as the new edition of Schumann’s cello concerto, due for release in January 2021, illustrate another type of Urtext project entirely. In this instance, Professor Josephine Knight has unearthed completely new source material that reveals substantive changes to the known version of the work. No doubt in time other publishers will follow our lead on this work to keep in line with the latest scholarship.

Another flagship project where Edition Peters offered a first for musicians was in the award-winning edition of The Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach.

This stunning hardcover and clothbound edition with gold embossing contains all the material from the 1722 and 1725 notebooks together in one volume presented in the original landscape format. Edited by pre-eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, Harvard Professor and former Director of the Leipzig Bach Archive, it represents the very latest in Bach scholarship, reflecting up-to-the-minute research on texts, authorship and copyists.

A key point to understand about Urtext scholarship is that any new resultant editions are copyright-protected. When done properly, Urtext editions take on average 3-5 years of work to produce, and at Edition Peters we do not accept any state funding for any editions. This means Edition Peters is truly independent of government support or agendas. Instead, when you purchase an Urtext edition from Edition Peters, you are not only helping to fund continued music research by the leading musicologists around the world with whom we work, but also supporting the Hinrichsen Foundation (Edition Peters owners and one of the world’s leading music charities supporting the promotion of new music).

Although the Urtext movement of the 20th century has brought important new scholarship to light, it is important not to dismiss the thousands of historic editions that were produced before the Urtext era. Many of these historic editions produced at Edition Peters were the result of a close and direct collaboration with the composers or with editors who were taught by them, and so have valuable provenance. A great example of this is the Emil von Sauer Liszt edition published by Edition Peters, with von Sauer being described by contemporaries as “the legitimate heir of Liszt; he has more of his charm and geniality than any other Liszt pupil.”

Indeed, the great Liszt pianist Leslie Howard has achieved a unique balance of Urtext scholarship combined with the historic input of von Sauer in his new Urtext Liszt edition for Edition Peters.

There is no single definitive Urtext publisher, but a wonderfully rich mix of Urtext publications on the market produced by the leading musicologists and publishers. These, along with the composers’ original historic editions, present varied but equally valid information and inspiration to the musician. We hope that you enjoy exploring this great repertoire as much as we have done, and continue to do, as publishers of this extraordinarily rich catalog!