ürtext – The Singular Lens

What are the tools that can be used to make a great performance? Imagination, technique, consistency… depending on your definition of ‘great’ it can be many different ones. Why Ürtext, then?

An article by Stuart Isacoff in the WSJ today wants to make the case against the ürtext editions many of us use and love. What is strange about his argument is that it starts with a rather spot-on critique of the state of piano performance today. I quite agree with him that recordings have made much pianism rather, well, bland. Micro-editing has been a detriment to imagination. I also think that this story he tells about Beecham and Cortot is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

But I am deeply, deeply puzzled that he lays the biggest damnation against ürtext editions. He implies that ürtext editions are free of sentiment, they are ‘objective,’ and goes on to claim that “urtext merely sanitizes, removing traces of humanity.” My jaw dropped open in stunned disbelief.

Mr. Isacoff, you have completely misunderstood the whole reason for ürtext. First of all, these editions help us performers put the music into historical context. Changes in performance style, demanded by changes in composer’s understanding of instruments, musical tastes, demands of the aristocracy, etc., etc., are reflected in changes of notation. This has gone on from pre-chant times and continues even today. These changes and usages in notation help us glean the composer’s intent, and we profit by understanding their usage of notation over the span of dozens of pieces. That quarter note, that one right there, in whatever piece you choose, means different things to Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, whomever.

There is so much humanity in understanding a composer’s shorthand. Once you understand their use of notation you have a better chance of determining what was important to that composer, and right there you have already contributed to the possibility of presenting a good performance. There were people alive in Vienna during the time when Beethoven was the rage who theoretically could have heard Bach play in Leipzig. The changes from Bach to Beethoven, musically, historically, sociologically, notationally, were fairly huge, and we profit by understanding them.

But there is a much more important role that ürtext plays. Just a few days ago I found myself at a quartet concert given by the young musicians of the Artaria String Quartet School and I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was. Hearing high school and even pre-high school kids playing quartets of Hadyn (the featured composer) was a riot. But smack dab in the middle one of the advanced quartets played a movement from Beethoven’s Harp. I found myself thinking two things:

  1. Wow – Beethoven was batshit crazy.
  2. How the hell do you notate that???

I’m a trained classical musician who is a pianist/conductor. I’ve done a fair bit of Beethoven in my life, and I’ve studied a fair bit more. The quartets have by no means been off my radar, but I don’t have time to idly sit around and blast through op. 130 on a Saturday afternoon. But we pianists had Mr. Beethoven drop quite a few gems into our little section of the sandbox, and their study is a job for a happy lifetime. I have to practice. So it has been many years since I had heard Harp, and my first instinct was to go back to the source. And this is where ürtext comes into play.

What Mr. Isacoff fails to understand is his own argument. These great pianists that he mentions, towering giants all, didn’t learn to play Beethoven from these sterilized recordings that he bemoans. There were none in their formative years. They learned Beethoven’s opus predominantly from written scores. So, when you have no one else’s aural interpretation to guide you, the only thing you can do is look at the music and employ your own imagination. This is why they were great pianists.

This here is exactly why an ürtext is valuable, especially in the case of someone like Beethoven. Because although these pianist mentioned were all giants of music history, the batshit craziest lunatic giant of them all was Beethoven. To hear the Harp after hearing three or four Haydn quartets was just mind blowing. The notational computer that is always on in my head (one of the downsides of being a conductor) went into overload just trying to keep up with what I was hearing. I want to see that! I want to see how you get what I heard onto paper!

With all due respect to Papa Haydn (and I have a much, much higher regard for his quartets now, thank you, Artaria kids), it was the Beethoven that impacted me on a notational level. When you’re familiar enough with a composer, as I would like to think I am with Beethoven, that ürtext is going to give me clues, help me plumb the depths of that madly inventive and insane mind, and force me to use my imagination. Beethoven was pushing the very boundaries of what the notation could hold, and that’s one of the ways we get to see how madly creative he really was.

And here’s the kicker – no, I do not listen to a lot of recordings. I avoid listening to classical music on recordings as much as possible. Some of it is unavoidable in my job as a conductor, but if I ever want to relax I will listen to something else. So for me that ürtext is invaluable. If you can block out the recorded material and use a good ürtext then you are doing exactly what those giants of the piano were doing! Learning from the source, arguing with genius from the source. With all due respect, again, to these great pianists, if given the choice I’d rather have a conversation with Herr Ludwig, and I bet they’d all say the same. He will force you to use all the imagination that you have.

I want to view the genius of Beethoven through the most undistorted lens that I can find. Since the manuscripts are generally unreadable (my good God, man, I thought my handwriting was bad) I will gladly accept the next best alternative – the ürtext. Frankly, I like my Beethoven like I like my scotch – old, peaty, and of course, neat.


6 thoughts on “ürtext – The Singular Lens”

  1. I love it that you mentioned our quartet school in your blog! My girls who played the “Harp” will get a kick out of your comments. We all agree that Beethoven had to be a little nutty!

  2. Excellent, excellent. Jacob Lateiner always used to say to me,”Yes, it’s nice to have imagination. But scrupulous attention to the most correct text leads you to the composer himself. In short–give thd guy a chance!”

  3. Yes, the oddest by far comment in what I otherwise thought a very good article is surely “urtext merely sanitizes, removing traces of humanity”, which suggests the composer was not human, and only editors are.

  4. Within the last few years I purchased the urtext of the Bach Well Tempered Clavichord, both volumes. My recent teacher had her urtexts from perhaps 40 years ago. Same publisher, same cover. But they are not the same. What does urtext mean if two of them are different? Bach’s manuscripts are beautiful; it can’t be a copyist problem.
    So, what is an urtext?

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