Beyond Urtext Editions

Question: Hello Albert,

I read with great interest your articles about Urtext Editions and Music Notation. I’ve been playing the piano for most of my life and am pursuing an interest in the various editions of piano literature. You have obviously done quite a bit of research on this topic. My question is this – are there any sources that talk about the various editions and their strengths and weaknesses, or is it really a matter of reviewing the literature and coming to your own conclusions?

Thanks for any input you may have.

– Sally Sprankle (Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA)

Albert’s reply: If there is an authoritative publication on Urtext editions I would love to discover it. The truth is that, while more modern editions often have the advantage of more resources as they are discovered (the occasional lost autograph may resurface), there will always be a large subjective component to so-called “Urtext” editions. Not only that, but variety is in the nature and spirit of classical music – “the composer’s intentions” is as loaded a term as it is misleading.

Even if there is only one source for a musical work, the editor still must make innumerable musical decisions. Does Chopin really distinguish between large and small accent signs? Are Schubert’s wedges decrescendo markings or accents? Are we to attempt the near-futile task of distinguishing dots from strokes in Beethoven’s manuscripts – even given Beethoven’s explicit distinction in a letter from 1825? Should obviously inconsistent passages be “corrected” by the editor? Should the location of dynamic and pedal markings be “rounded” to the nearest rhythmic value, or ought they to be reproduced as precisely in accordance with the autograph as possible?

These are questions that every editor of classical music must confront, and the answers are matters of debate as well as taste and good judgment. To arrive at reasonable conclusions an editor needs to be a good musician, and in this respect editors are not all created equal.

All the same, editions nowadays are very good on the whole, so it’s difficult to be led too far astray by any new edition by the major music publishers. Musicians themselves also need to be attuned to notational inconsistencies and know when to distrust the editor. (For instance, musical commonsense and a plethora of other arguments tell us that Beethoven clearly intended an A natural leading to the recapitulation of the first movement of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, yet pianists continue to blindly play the incorrect A-sharp!)

Another consideration is fingerings. I often prefer Bärenreiter editions because they are unfingered, and I find fingerings in most editions very distracting. I recommend that all piano students learn to finger it out for themselves!

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