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What is "Urtext"

Musicians trust Henle's blue Urtext editions because they:

  • provide an undistorted, reliable and authoritative musical text
  • offer superb, aesthetically appealing music engraving
  • are optimized for practical use (page turns, fingerings)
  • are of high quality and durable (cover, paper, binding)
  • contain prefaces and explanatory footnotes in German, French and English 
  • contain a description of the sources, an evaluation of the sources, readings and a documentation of the corrections made (= "Critical Report") in German and English, often also in French

The term "Urtext" has been debated ever since it was first used. Yet the idea behind it is simple and easy to understand: the musician is offered a musical text which solely reflects the composer's intentions. One might think that this is self-evident. However, well into the twentieth century the great performers of the day were absolutely convinced that musical texts – especially those of works from the eighteenth century – were incomplete or had suffered from faulty transmission, in particular concerning how they were to be performed. This being the case, they altered the text, made additions and polished it, either at their own discretion or citing eye witnesses or ear witnesses. In so doing they generally did not refer to the original sources but often arranged the first printed version that came along, which itself probably differed from the original. Thus the original musical text was substantially distorted, sometimes to the extent that it was no longer recognisable.

In order to produce an Urtext edition worthy of the name, the editor must first of all strip away the distorted layers. This task is similar to the one carried out by a restorer of fine paintings who divests a work of art of all the changes made to it over the centuries to reveal the original. To this end the editor turns to the source criticism. This evaluates whether, and to what extent, an existing document (e.g. a music manuscript or a printed version) was authorized by the composer.

The composer's original manuscript is often gone and even if it is available, the editor must ascertain whether the composer did not also authorize later sources (e.g. the first edition). Once the wheat has been separated from the chaff, the second, no less painstaking phase begins: textual criticism. Now that the editor has uncovered the "nucleus" of the work, the sources (textual witnesses) have to be examined meticulously - note by note, mark by mark. Experience has shown that the mere complexity of the musical notation means that the sources are not able to provide us with a text free of ambiguity.

This is where the text-critical editor is required to make decisions. The most important observations and editorial decisions are elucidated in the preface, in the critical commentary, in footnotes, or by being marked as such in the musical text. It therefore comes as no surprise that an editor has to invest a great deal of patience, knowledge and time when piecing together the correct Urtext. Proven specialists with extensive experience edit our Urtext editions in close cooperation with our editorial department.

There is no such thing as the one valid Urtext version of a musical composition, because – as said before – the Urtext edition is not the same as a composer's manuscript. (Unfortunately even today many musicians believe this to be the case, for the word "Urtext" [original text] probably also supports this idea.) In most cases the Urtext editor has to choose between different readings in the primary sources: What is "correct", what is "wrong"? Often there is no clear answer. At all events, a good Urtext edition justifies the decision made (and printed). Yet "errare humanum est" – and this is why it is so important for musicians and philologists to be in constant and active contact with one another. Our blog also makes a small contribution to this. 

The verified musical text that is exclusively based on the musical sources is at the heart of each Urtext edition. Yet, in addition, a Henle Urtext edition also has to serve the needs of a practising musician. Aside from easy-to-read engraving, we believe that this also includes suggestions for fingerings and, if necessary, bowings. They are both meant as stimuli and serve as a starting point for the musician's own study of the music. Famous music teachers and artists put their knowledge and experience at our disposal for Henle Urtext editions. Quite a number of editions (in particular music for strings) are offered both with marked and unmarked parts, and all of Johann Sebastian Bach's piano compositions are available in two separate editions, either with or without fingerings.