Bärenreiter and the evolution of Urtext

Petra Woodfull-Harris

Bärenreiter’s publications are recognized by their covers in all colors of the rainbow and we owe our international reputation to the extensive musicological work that forms the basis of our Urtext editions.

But what exactly is Urtext? It’s the attempt to put together a musical text that is as close as possible to the composer’s intentions. Sounds pretty straightforward – all you need to do is to transcribe the composer’s autograph into modern notation, right? It’s actually not that easy, even if there is an autograph (however, there are many that have not come down to us). This document will generally represent one, if not the primary source. But what if the composer made corrections in manuscript parts used for the first performance, or even later in the proofs for the first edition? What, if years later, the composer revised the work for a particular performance situation?

The work of an Urtext editor is much like that of a detective. ‘Source tracing’ is the magic phrase, asking questions such as: which sources to a particular work are missing but must have existed at one point? In many cases, the editor has to search for sources in libraries, archives and private collections before defining the interrelationships between all available sources and deciding about their relevance.

Urtext editions

Bärenreiter’s first Urtext performing editions were all based on so-called Complete Editions such as the New Bach Edition, the New Mozart Edition, the New Schubert Edition, started shortly after World War II in response to the ‘old’ Complete Editions of the 19th century which no longer met current editorial and musicological standards. Editorial teams made up of leading musicologists were founded, and research into the entire oeuvre of the respective composer was state-funded. Based on their many Complete Editions, Bärenreiter published performing Urtext editions, with the identical musical text. Almost the entire oeuvre of Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Händel is found in the Bärenreiter Urtext catalogue.

After much discussion at Bärenreiter, it was agreed that in order to grow the publisher’s catalogue, it was necessary to go beyond the Complete Editions. The first Urtext edition published independently of a Complete Edition was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (BA 9009) in 1996, followed by all of Beethoven symphonies. In the string area, Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata (BA 10919) represented the first Urtext edition published in 1997 independently of a Complete Edition.

The missing element: performing practice

In 2000, with the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death, Bärenreiter published a new type of Urtext edition which stirred the musical world and brought Bärenreiter much international acclaim: Douglas Woodfull-Harris’ and Bettina Schwemer’s edition of the Bach Cello Suites (BA 5217).

Bach’s Cello Suites pose particular editorial problems as no autograph has come down to us. Instead of combining all five existing sources, the editors decided to supply players with the sources themselves as well as extensive information on historical performing practice so that cellists would be in a position to make their own informed decisions and choices. The edition not only offers a performing score in modern notation with different readings indicated within the musical text, it also provides cellists with facsimile reproductions of the sources in five separate booklets as well as with an extensive text on the genesis of the suites, the cello in Bach’s day, bowing techniques, articulation, embellishments, vibrato, dynamics, the execution of chords and scordatura.

This was the beginning of Performing Practice becoming, whenever possible, an essential component of a Bärenreiter Urtext edition.

Christopher Hogwood integrated performing practice issues in his edition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (BA 6994), published in 2000, by using as its main source the so-called Manchester Manuscript which allowed insight into how the work was understood in Vivaldi’s lifetime.

Another important aspect of performing practice is the examination of close collaboration between composers and performers. Ample evidence of this has come down to us in correspondence and annotated source material that sheds light on just how influential virtuosos were in determining the final form of a work. Clive Brown demonstrated this in his edition of Brahms’ violin concerto (BA 9049), published in 2006, for which Joseph Joachim played a decisive role, and Mendelssohn’s violin concerto (BA 9099), revised edition published in 2018, of which Ferdinand David shaped many details.

Christopher Hogwood’s edition of Corelli’s Sonatas for Violin and Basso continuo Op. 5 (BA 9455/ BA 9456), published in 2013, represents another landmark. The edition includes a contemporary keyboard realization by Antonio Tonelli (1686–1765). This arguably most important written-out example of continuo playing in the 18th century is astonishing as it contradicts prevailing 20th century ideas of keyboard realization in many aspects, e.g. with regard to its rich, full chords. The edition also provides a supplement with violin embellishments from Corelli’s time which can serve today’s players as models.

This new editorial approach has culminated in Clive Brown’s fabulous editions of Brahms’ Works for Solo Instrument and Piano as well as Beethoven’s Sonatas for Pianoforte and Violin. These editions are accompanied by unprecedented Performing Practice Commentaries. Clive Brown’s editions seek to recover some of the messages and performing practices that these composers expected their notations to convey to a performer. In the text parts of his editions, issues specific to each work as well as to general 19th century performance practice are discussed with regard to tempo, rubato, rhythmic flexibility and articulation, for example. Furthermore, string players will find information concerning vibrato, portamento, fingering and bowing.

In the early days of Urtext publishing, and even today, the idea of a ‘definitive final version’ of a work prevails. This concept, however, was to be challenged over the years. Composers for the most part did not consider their works as final and definitive but much rather were quite willing to make alterations in order to adjust to specific performance situations. With the creation of a new version, older ones were not necessarily replaced or lost their value. Christopher Hogwood first did justice to this practice by editing Mendelssohn’s Overtures (2003–2009) with their separate differing versions. The same approach was taken when Larry Todd edited Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (2005), rendering the work’s early version of 1844 as well as the well-known later one.

Expansion of the repertoire

We are often asked how we decide what to publish. There are several criteria.

One aspect is that we are building our catalogue with key works of the repertoire. On the other hand, we aim to enhance our catalogue with selected, musically valuable, lesser-known works such as Hummel’s Sonata for Pianoforte and Violoncello Op. 104 (BA 10904), Joseph Joachim’s Fantasy on Hungarian Themes (1850), Fantasy on Irish [Scottish] Themes (1852) for Violin and Orchestra (BA 7898-90), and Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22 (BA 10947).

What also determines our program is the musicological need for a new edition. This was the reason why Bärenreiter expanded their catalogue with late 19th century and early 20th century French repertoire. Much of this music was only available in older editions, often with many mistakes. This is how César Franck, Debussy and Ravel found their way into Bärenreiter’s catalogue.

Why Bärenreiter Urtext?

What makes our editions different from other publishers’ Urtext editions? There is not an easy, all-encompassing answer. In many cases, you will have to compare individual editions.

Generally speaking, Bärenreiter editors consult a wide circle of sources, directly linked to the composer. This approach allows for insights into performing practice issues.

Also, Bärenreiter generally does not follow the principal of unifying parallel passages. This popular editorial approach is based on the assumption that the composer expected a performer to use the same dynamics and articulation in parallel passages, e.g. in the recapitulation as in the exposition. In many cases, Bärenreiter does not agree with this practice and allows for variants to be intended as we know today how important variation, embellishment and improvisation were throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bärenreiter usually provides extensive Prefaces, often with performance practice information. This text apparatus supplies information on a particular work not to be found in books or essays. And lastly our Urtext editions – or the corresponding Complete Edition volumes – always include complete Critical Commentaries. In the Critical Commentary, the editor accounts for different readings and explains editorial decisions.

As you can see, the idea of Urtext has undergone quite a development at Bärenreiter. It is, of course, still about the correct pitch and which note the composer intended; but today it is just as much about what that note meant to a contemporary performer and how it was expected to be played.

Petra Woodfull-Harris trained as a piano teacher in Germany and gained a Master of Arts in Music Education in the US. She has worked at Bärenreiter for more than 30 years, currently as Sales Manager for North America.

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