Urtext Myths Part 1

 “The New Bärenreiter Urtext Edition is audibly different and leads to a new way of hearing and understanding the Symphonies.”

From the Barenreiter website

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to write a little something on the myths and misunderstandings surrounding Beethoven Urtext editions.

First, before I create a lot of misunderstanding, let me affirm that I must be about the best customer either Breitkopf or Barenreiter have- I own scores to both editions of all 9 symphonies and sets of parts to one or the other of all but the 9th. None of what is to follow should be taken as my discounting the value of these publications. Rather, to explain what that value is and isn’t.

It’s a wonderful thing that in the last 15 years we’ve had a revolution in Beethoven materials, with 2 new Urtext (Breitkopf and Barenreiter) editions now available for conductors (and one more, Henle, in progress, albeit possibly infinitely slow progress).

At the same time, there has been a parallel rise in the influence of performance practice research in Beethoven, which has led to a whole new generation of recordings and performances.

Unfortunately, when scholarship meets marketing hyperbole, self-promotion and the messy business of music criticism, confusion can only ensue.

So, here are a few misconceptions about these new editions that I’ve come across more than once.


1-       Metronome markings.


Here’s a quote from a recent review of a recent box set of Beethoven symphonies by a well known critic (made google-proof by a slight shift of prose)


 “These recordings make use of Beethoven’s controversial metronome markings, one of many revelations in Jonathan Del Mar’s new Urtext edition for Barenreiter, which formed the basis of these performances.”


Neither the Del Mar nor the Breitkopf Urtext editions are breaking any new ground by including Beethoven’s metronome markings. Those are all available in the old editions (Dover, old Breitkopf, Peters, etc), and have been for over a hundred years. If anything, Del Mar, in particular, treats the metronome markings with a greater degree of skepticism than his anonymous predecessors. Beethoven added metronome markings for the first 8 symphonies in 1817 in an article published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. Where the old editions reproduce all those metronome markings next to the tempo markings in the scores, Del Mar puts them in footnotes for symphonies 1-6 on the grounds that they were afterthoughts and not part of his original compositional process. In other words, if one was looking for a reason NOT to consider Beethoven’s metronome markings, Del Mar gives more basis for skepticism than previous editors.  However, for the 7th and 8th Symphonies, he includes them in the tempo markings, explaining in the Critical Notes that

“Since hardly a year earlier Beethoven was making his final revisions to op 92 and 93 in preparation for its publication- so that the work was still relatively fresh in his mind- it seems justifiable to accept these metronome markings as having been determined in the same spirit of creation, as it were, as that of the Symphony itself: and we according present these as  an integral part of the text.”

I find this a quite arbitrary rationalization- how can a mere mortal begin to guess when a genius like Beethoven ceases to have a score of his own creation “fresh in his mind?” I am reminded of the story of Shostakovich’s attendance at the long-delayed premiere of his 4th Symphony, written in 1935 but premiered in 1961. Shostakovich came to the rehearsals empty handed (without a score), not having looked carefully at the score in 25 years, but was able to fix notes, correct mistakes by the players and give out rehearsal numbers to the conductor from memory without a single mistake. His memory of every single note and dynamic in the huge piece was absolute. For minds like Beethoven and Shostakovich, it’s probable they still had as perfectly vivid a mental image of a work 30 year later as the day they finished it.  On the other hand, the 9th Symhony, which has metronome markings dating to the actual period of comosition, has the most problematic metronome markings of any symphony (and the most concluded by modern scholars to be wrong).

In any case, what is interesting is that there is a whole generation of critics and listeners who think that conductors nowadays are taking the metronome markings more seriously because of the Del Mar edition (the Breitkopf has only been recorded once, by Kurt Masur, and he’s always been a slow Beethoven conductor). In fact, working from Del Mar would tend to make one more skeptical, not less, of the metronome markings.

The whole topic of metronome markings in Beethoven is bigger than this post or this thread, but Toscanini and Erich Kleiber, not to mention Mendelssohn, were taking those markings very seriously a long time ago. Furtwangler, the most often cited example of a pre-metrnome marking conductor, was quite aware of them. Almost all of his recordings express a range of rubato or urgency and repose that goes from far below to far above the metronome markings. Simply checking the first bar’s tempo in Furtwangler won’t do. Conductors and scholars have argued about and struggled with these markings for nearly 200 years, and will continue to do so. If a modern-day conductor is conducting a movement faster than you’re used to, it’s not because of Jonathan Del Mar, Clive Brown or Peter Hauschild (with the exception of the Turkish March in the 9th).

Also, just because a conductor advocates “brisk” tempos or claims fidelity to the metronome marking doesn’t mean that their performances validate those claims. I recently came across a box set with a passionate note from the conductor advocating strict adherence to LvB’s metronome markings, but he’s far under the markings in almost every instance. His scholarship and his heart rate seem to be incompatible!

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “Urtext Myths Part 1”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    I’ve always shaken my head at this preoccupation with B’s metronome markings. As B himself famously said (and I have to paraphrase here because I can’t lay my hands on the actual source of the quote), “My tempi markings are merely general indications of how the first few measures should be played. After that, any competent musician will know how what follows must go by simply listening to the music.”

    Spot-on right for the works of any first-rate composer. Listen to the music! If you have a first-rate ear, the music will tell you what it wants to be with or without tempo markings. All you have to do is listen to what it has to tell you.

    (I’m in a bit of a rush at the moment or I would tell you the most delicious story about Wagner — a very great conductor himself as I’m sure you’re aware — and the metronome markings he placed on his own work because his greatest complaint forever was that he never met a conductor whom he would trust to get the tempi of his music right.)


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