What is Urtext?
Musicians trust Henle’s blue Urtext editions. And rightly so because our musical scores
- provide the undistorted, reliable and authoritative musical text
- offer superb, aesthetically pleasing music engraving
- contain a short preface that introduces the work in German, English and French as well as explanatory footnotes for particularly interesting passages in the score
- include a “Critical Report” in German and English (often also in French) with a complete list of the sources, an evaluation of the sources and different readings, including a documentation of the corrections that have been made
- are optimised for practical use (page turns, fingerings) for all printed editions, in addition you can customise the musical layout of your score in the digital “Henle Library” app
- the printed ones are of extremely high quality and durability (cover, paper, binding).
G. Henle Publishers has been t h e Urtext publishing house ever since it was founded. The term “Urtext” has been debated since it was first used around the turn of the twentieth century. In the following we have summarised the most important aspects of “Urtext”.
The idea behind it is simple and easy to understand. The musician is offered a musical text which reflects the composer’s intentions. The text is undistorted, meaning that neither the editor nor the publishing house have undertaken changes that might misrepresent it.
This might appear 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 to it 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 authorised by the composer or not. The source that is closest to this is the composer’s original manuscript, called an autograph. Yet, this manuscript is often gone and even if it is available, the editor must ascertain whether the composer might not also have authorised later sources (e.g. the first edition). For composers often continue to make improvements during the publication process. Thus “Urtext” cannot be equated with the composer's manuscript. (Even today there are still many musicians who believe this to be true, a fact that is not helped by the unclear terminology.)
Once the Urtext editor has separated the wheat from the chaff of the textual witnesses (sources), the second, no less painstaking phase begins: textual criticism. Now that the editor has uncovered the “nucleus” of the work, the primary sources (the textual witnesses authorised by the composer) 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.
In cases such as these, the Urtext editor is required to make a decision: Which source provides the “correct” (= the composer’s ultimate) text, and which is “wrong”. It is often not possible to find a definitive answer. A good Urtext edition justifies the decision that has been made (and printed) – in the form of an explanation in the Preface, in the Critical Report, in footnotes or by indicating it 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.
Henle Urtext editions not only have to provide a musical text that has been edited according to the finest scholarly principles. They also have to serve the practical needs of musicians. Aside from easy-to-read engraving that as far as possible provides good page turns we believe this also includes suggestions for fingerings and, if necessary, bowings. They are not only meant as stimuli but also 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. Our editions for the scoring piano and one string instrument contain two parts as a matter of course: both with marked and unmarked parts. All of Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano compositions as well as the piano sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart are available in two separate print editions, either with or without fingerings. And finally, in the digital “Henle Library” app, the fingerings and bowings can easily be removed or added through a simple click. Numerous works are available in the app with additional fingerings and bowings by famous living and historic performers.