Urtext Myths 2- Lean and mean? Says who?

“I like/dislike the leaner textures  of the new Urtext edition of the Beethoven Symphonies by Jonathan Del Mar, and loathe/prefer the more robust sound of the old Breitkopf edition…”

This quote is typical of many reviews I’ve come across recently, both favorable and unfavorable, which equate the new editions of the Beethoven symphonies with a leaner and more transparent sound. One critic might praise a maestro for “scrubbing the over-ripe sound of the Vienna Philharmonic clean by replacing their treasured old 19th c. Breitkopf parts with fresh copies of the new Del Mar edition” while another bemoans how modern editions are inherently lighter and less robust than the old ones.

In fact, while there are many interesting differences between any of the modern Urtext editions and the old Breitkopf parts, virtually none of those has anything to do with transparency or sound quality.

This is not true for all composers. Perhaps the confusion begins with Mahler- the critical editions of Mahler are most important because the represent a later stage of revision than the parts published in his lifetime and now in the public domain. This is because Mahler, the great conductor, used his experience of conducting his own symphonies to constantly refine the orchestration. The vast majority of changes Mahler made in his own works were intended to clarify the orchestral texture- he removed doublings, reduced dynamics and generally thinned out the textures.

In fact, the notion of a “final” version of any of his works seemed to be foreign to Mahler- every time he revisited one of his works, he seemed to re-think some details of orchestration (only very, very rarely did he go beyond changing orchestration, virtually never cutting or re-writing anything and only occasionally modifying tempo markings).

On the other hand, Beethoven rarely re-visited his own music- he was not a reviser. While we have several versions of Mahler or Bruckner symphonies, even revisions of Mendelssohn and Schumann, Beethoven essentially did not revise his symphonies once they were published.

However, like Mahler, he didn’t seem all that interested in leaving a “definitive and final” version of his works. Instead, he was more concerned with writing the next piece than with finalizing details of the last one. Almost the only major re-visitation of his own symphonies was the addition in 1817 of metronome markings, which to me is a huge argument for taking them seriously. He never bothered to clarify hundreds of conflicting details of articulation and dynamics, but he went to great pains to set every tempo in every movement of every symphony.

So, in Mahler, a modern scholarly edition will take into account the composer’s own revisions as entered in various sets of performing materials and scores. In Beethoven the challenge is different- Beethoven wasn’t particularly interested in revision, but there are many discrepancies between different early sources, and the autographs are not definitive. Beethoven might have made changes to the copyist’s score or the first printed edition and not bothered to insert those into the autograph. There are changes in early editions that seem sure to have come from Beethoven, but whose origins can’t be proven to trace back to him. For the first 3 symphonies, the autographs are lost.

So, different editors, whether they be today’s leading celebrity experts or the anonymous staff of the old Breitkopf house of the last century, are bound to come to differing conclusions about which source is most likely to be correct.

However, they are all looking at the same piece, and essentially the same version of the same piece. They are not looking at a revised orchestration from later in Beethoven’s life. They are comparing differnt sources, but not different revisions or versions. Unlike Mahler, Beethoven did not tinker with orchestration after his symphonies were published.

There is now a broadly accepted consensus that Beethoven expected his symphonies to be played not by an enormous symphony orchestra of nearly 100 musicians, but by a chamber orchestra of about 40 players. This is not something that originated in any of the critical editions.

In fact, in his edition of the 5th Symphony (which was premiered by a smallish orchestra, probably 12 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos and 3 basses), Clive Brown even points out that Beethoven often used , and may have preferred, quite large orchestras for performances of his works under his supervision.

In December 1807/January 1808 Beethoven directed his 3rd and 4th   in a mixed amateur and professional  concert ceries… with a string compliment of 13/12/7/6/4…. he first performances of the 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies were all given by very substantial orchestras (the 7th and 8th, for instance, with 36 violins 14 violas, 12 cellos and 7 basses and doubled wind). In these large-scale performances the Viennese practice followed by Beethoven was for hte score to be divided into solo and ripieno sections- the former were played by one instrument per part and a reduced string section, while the latter were played by the whole orchestra”

So, in Beethoven’s lifetime, he participated in performances of his own symphonies with small, medium and enormous orchestras. The new Urtext editions don’t change that- there is nothing in any of them that tells us LvB wanted a smaller orchestra or a thinner sound. They can be used with a 100 piece modern orchestra, just as the old edition can be used with a 40 piece period instrument ensemble. The primary differences one hears between performances have to do with who is playing and how, not what they are looking at on their stands.


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