A blog entry on 24 December – how could it not have Christmas associations? Not even a Henle editor would have it otherwise. Should there really be a blog post on problems in Urtext editions on a date so emotionally charged? That does not seem quite in line to me. Yet, perhaps even in Christmas music undreamt-of Urtext questions might be napping, so that the two could be combined elegantly one with the other? Let’s give it a try in the following.‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ – it’s virtually impossible to get through December without singing this Christmas hit, and everywhere in the whole world that’s so. But where are the roots of the song – and how does the source situation look? Joseph Mohr wrote the text in 1816, and Franz Xaver Gruber contributed the melody in 1818. On 24 December 1818 the song was heard for the first time at the Christmas midnight mass in the St. Nicolas church in Oberndorf near Salzburg. Soon most likely it already belonged in the repertory of the local parish there. The song only began its triumphal march, though, after it had found its way into the Zillertal valley (Tyrol) by some not quite explicable means. There the vocal ensemble of the Strasser family added the tune to their repertoire and on their European tours repeatedly performed ‘Silent Night’. Documented in 1832 is a performance in Leipzig, and here people pricked up their ears: The publisher Friese obviously recognized the potential of the Strasser songs and published in 1833 a collection of ‘Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs’, including ‘Silent Night’ (without Gruber’s involvement; this website shows a reproduction of the print). A second Zillertal singing family, (the Rainers) took ‘Silent Night’ on tour to America where presumably it was heard for the first time in 1839. Today the song is in existence in 300 languages and dialects.
But what does all this have to do with Urtext questions? When we look at the four extant autographs (see the informative website of the Stille Nacht Gesellschaft, including recordings of the original versions) and compare them with the version of Friese’s first edition, some bewildering differences show up. In the following example 1 the melody line is reproduced from autograph II (transposed to C major), in example 2 the version of the first edition.
Apart from the rhythmic differences (especially with respect to dotting), the first edition makes two crucial interventions: 1) the melodic dip to the lower neighbouring tone in measures 3 and 4 was levelled so that the pitches were repeated. Instead, the print shows odd ornamental-like dottings that are presumably to be executed glissando-style and may possibly reflect performance by the Strasser family (and, incidentally, that of singers of our time); 2) the leap of a fifth between measures 8 and 9 was expanded in the print to a seventh, followed by a third above (accented). These leaps affect the continuation of the melody in the second half of m. 9: The stepwise tones d2–c2–b1 of the autograph version are replaced by a broken dominant-seventh chord (f2–d2–b1); only in m. 10 are once again the two versions identical. The first edition hence expands the song’s range, already enormous as it is, from a tenth to an eleventh and creates a dramatic emotional climax.
Indeed, the second version represents the song in the form widely known today; nevertheless, the first version, adequately secured by four autograph sources (differing from each other in setting, accompaniment and details of melodic line), thus embodies the authentic form of the melody of the song – the Urtext.
So, doesn’t an Urtext edition have to re-establish ‘Silent Night’ in its authentic version and free the melody from later interventions? Clearly, the answer is yes. But we don’t want to be pedantic here. A good edition must, on the one hand, also document established readings, even when they are not authentic. On the other hand, the composer Gruber might well have approved the second version – it did after all appear in his lifetime. Finally, we must admit that possibly the application of rigid Urtext principles may not apply in the case of song literature undergoing popular dissemination. In short, perhaps we should again be made more strongly aware of Gruber’s original version and properly appreciate it. But in this case no one really wants to condemn any sort of adaptation. In this spirit: Merry Christmas!