Battle of the Beethoven Urtexts

I attracted a few titters (as opposed to twitters) on Facebook the other day, when my status admitted I was in the process of comparing Urtext editions of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony by Jonathan Del Mar (published by Barenreiter) and Clive Brown (published by Breitkopf and Hartel).

I still come across interviews with leading Beethoven conductors talking about how for most of their lives there was no critical edition of the Beethoven symphonies available. Suddenly we have two! What to make of them???

The Del Mar has been in circulation for over a decade, and as the first to the post, it’s had the good fortune to be used in recordings of several cycles, notably Gardiner’s, Zinman’s, Abbado’s and several others. I still chuckle when I read reviews of my former teacher David Zinman’s set praising the revelations of the new Urtext edition when I remember David’s gleeful admission in conducting class that his parts where so marked up and edited that they looked, in his words, “like a fucking Mahler symphony.”

I’ve conducted all nine in Del Mar by now, and all but the 9th in the old Breitkopf/Kalmus/Mystery edition. There are also good scores available of the First and Second from Henle.  Last spring I got interested in the new Breitkopf Urtext edition and looked for some reviews of the materials. All I could find on line was one review from a librarian at the LPO who had concerns about the page turns in some of the parts while expressing admiration for the quality of the scholarship.

The most obvious difference between the Breitkopf and Barenreiter editions is the fact that the Breitkopf edition shares editorial responsibilities between Clive Brown and Peter Hauschild, while the Barenreiter is entirely the work of Del Mar. The arguments for both approaches are intriguing- a single editor allows for a consistency of editorial approach and realization. Sharing the workload offers the opportunity for a wider breadth of opinion and possibly an edition that is less tainted by the tendencies and prejudices of a single eye and mind.

After all, I’m not sure a real Urtext edition should have a star editor- the whole point of a scholarly edition ought to be to make the preferences and tendencies of all outside hands- past performers, past editors and current ones- disappear and instead to give us the most honest and unbiased picture of what the composer wrote and wanted, in all its messy contradiction.

Last year, I did the Fifth in the Brown edition– again, there was the question of page turns. Brown leaves open the question of whether there should be a da capo in the Scherzo of the 5th while Del Mar is against it (although Zinman and Abbado both take it in spite of him- again, just because it says “Del Mar” on the CD box doesn’t mean you’re necessarily hearing the editor’s point of view). Although there were clear markings in the music for taking the da capo repeat, some of the strings had impossible page turns to get back to the top. It wasn’t a big deal, but did necessitate some photocopying.

Otherwise, I found the bar-by-bar comparison of his score with Del Mar’s and my old Norton Critical Score and the Dover interesting. Brown also has a book-length volume of Critical Notes for the 5th Symphony which I found incredibly interesting and helpful. Interestingly, many of the new “discoveries and corrections” in the Del Mar that everyone was so excited about look more like “possibilities and questions” in the Brown edition. Brown is exceptionally careful to let the conductor know of all possible credible variant versions left to us by Beethoven, who never arrived at a “final” version of the 5th. Most of the time, you don’t have to even go to the critical notes to see variants- wherever possible he’ll put both versions in the score in a clear format. I came away from the Brown score with a better sense of just how contradictory the sources are, and that as a performer you need to know where the contradictions are and be prepared to make your own determinations of what you think Beethoven was after. If something is not 100% certain from the sources, the editor should let us know that and let us see all the messy, confusing facts, and where possible, give us performing materials that can be adapted to different readings with tons of editing by the librarians.

Now, I’ve repeated the process with 2nd Symphony, also edited by Clive Brown. This time, the critical notes are included in the same volume as the score itself, which is incredibly convenient. With Del Mar (and with the Brown 5th), you are required to by separate, expensive volumes for the notes. Again, there are many interesting differences with Del Mar- things that are closer to the “old” edition in places, others that seem like completely new discoveries (including some interesting notes that are different in some sources!). As with the 5th, Brown is generally more pro-active (but not always so) at letting the conductor know when there is more than one legitimate version of the passage at hand, and the presence of the Critical Notes in the same volume makes the process of following up on those points very convenient.

In both symphonies there are passages that I find more convincing in one or the other edition, and Brown doesn’t always come forward with alternate readings to the version he’s given us, but he does so more often than Del Mar.

In this case, I’ve bought my own set of parts from Breitkopf. They look great- I’ll let readers know if funky page issues raise their ugly heads.

So, my verdict? Any professional conductor should own both scores when your budget allows for it, as well as a reprint of the old version (which you’ll still see on stands for many years to come and which is really not bad at all). Both are excellent, and the opportunity to compare to such well-researched and well presented editions is a delight. Right now, Del Mar is the industry standard, and one can get steamrolled in this business if you do much thinking for yourself. However, if you can only afford one at this time, by the Brown- the inclusion of the Critical Notes make it an easy first choice.

I have yet to do any of the symphonies edited by Hauschild. I’ll report back if I get the chance!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Battle of the Beethoven Urtexts”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » And parts is parts- building a library

  2. Mikko Utevsky

    I worked under you at the Madison, WI summer music clinic last summer, and I’m currently preparing the Fifth to conduct with some other students this summer. I was wondering what you thought of the Dover, since it’s within the price range of a high school student (whereas buying the Breitkopf or Barenreiter gets a bit pricey). I’ve heard tales of misprints in the Dover – are they there, are they bad, and should I buy an urtext?

  3. Maggie/Victor Donson

    My husband and I are trying to locate Jonathan Del Mar in London. We met him in St. Maarten many years ago and are hoping to meet up with him again. We are now living permanently in London. However, We have no way of contacting him.
    Can you help in any way? Feel free to pass our email address on to him.

    Thanks….and kindest regards
    Victor and Maggie

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