Urtext myths 4: Whose score is it anyway?

Over the last five or six years, I’ve gradually been building up a rather nice library of orchestral parts, all marked with my bowings and any special requests (such as “on the string”: I haven’t yet tried writing in things like “stop glaring, you are making me uncomfortable” or “order me a pizza since you are tacet in this movement”) . I’ve focused on the most central standard works- starting with quite a bit of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, all the Schumann symphonies, a couple of key Mahler works and working my way out from there. This weekend, I’m bowing my brand-new set of parts to Brahms 2. I’ve been holding off on investing in the Brahms because there is a new Critical edition currently in preparation under the editorship of Robert Pascall.

I bought and put into use Pascall’s parts for Brahms 1 last year, to generally good reviews. However, there are frustrations with the publication of both works. Pascall’s edition was made for Henle, but the orchestral materials are distributed and printed by Breitkopf.

Henle publishes a cheap study score and a VERY expensive cloth-bound full score. Only the full Henle score contains the notes. Breitkopf also offer both a study and full score, but NEITHER version includes the Critical Notes. I think this is, bluntly, a real cheat- what a  pity that all conductors can’t take advantage of the full depth of Mr. Pascall’s scholarship. The large Henle score is really designed for libraries, not performance,and it really requires an institutional budget. As it is, none of the libraries here in Cardiff have it, and I’ve not had a response from Breitkopf or Mr. Pascall when I’ve enquired about getting the Notes separately. In the process of preparing Brahms 2, I’ve also been disappointed to discover a couple of instances of measures being spread across two lines in the parts. This, to me, is the absolute lowest, most amateurish thing any publisher can do- it absolutely guarantees a few counting mistakes and lost players in every first (and many 2nd and 3rd) rehearsal that these parts will ever be used for. It’s so careless. Had I known of this, I would have stuck with the old Breikopf edition from the 1920’s edited by Hans Gál.  I’m seriously reconsidering whether to spend the extra money for the Critical versions of the 3rd and 4th Symphonies (The 3rd just came out, the 4th is in preparation). The changes are few, and the absence of proper Critical Notes means they don’t really function like a true scholarly edition, anyway.

So, my acquisition of the Brahms symphonies has reached an impasse at the halfway point. Meanwhile, I recently completed my collection of all the Beethoven symphonies, buying a lovely set of the Ninth just in time for my performance of it with the SMP in November. I’ve mixed the new Breitkopf Urtext edition co-edited by Clive Brown and Peter Hauschild with the Barenreiter edition of Jonathan Del Mar throughout, as follows-


Symphony 1- Brown/ Breitkopf

Symphony 2- Brown/Breitkopf

Symphony 3- Del Mar/Barenreiter

Symphony 4- Del Mar/Barenreiter

Symphony 5- Brown/Breitkopf

Symphony 6- Del Mar/Barenreiter

Symphony 7- Del Mar/Barenreiter

Symphony 8- Hauschild/Breitkopf

Symphony 9- Del Mar/Barenreiter

In any case, when I’m preparing any Beethoven symphony, I have on my desk the “old” Breitkopf, the Dover reprint of Litolf (which I learned them from in the first place and which is full of interesting notes from teachers and rehearsals), and the two new Urtext editions- Breitkopf and Barenreiter, as well as the Critical Notes from both editions.

As with the Brahms symphonies, the new editions do not render un-usable the  old Breitkopf edition most of us grew up with. There are relatively few major changes between the old and new editions, and some of those changes are decidedly sketchy. Riccardo Chailly recently decided to eschew the new Urtext editions completely and record his new, historically informed, set from the old Peters Asusgabe from the 1800’s.

I’ve read some funny things in reviews in recent years. First of all, quite a few critics don’t realize there are now two Urtext editions (although Mr Del Mar refuses to credit Mr Hauschild’s efforts with Urtext status), and so I’ve seen some sniffy dismissals of conductors for being out of touch for using Breitfkopf parts for their recordings instead of the “new” Barenreiter edition, when, in fact, they were using the new Breitkopf Urtext parts, which are more recently completed than the Barenreiter (although the two editions mostly overlap). There is also a common misconception that the old edition has thousands of mistakes in it . Of course, all the great orchestras have librarians who are staggeringly meticulous in their preparation of performance material. All of those old parts in Philadelphia, Chicago or Vienna would have been proofed and checked dozens of times. And, of course, all the new editions have mistakes, new mistakes, in them as well.

So why invest in an Urtext edition? They tend to be pretty to look at, although there can be layout problems (as with the Brahms 2 parts currently on my desk, which also have some dodgy page turn issues). They tend to be a bit more careful in replicating the quirks of each composers notation, rather than standardizing things to “house style.” However, the most important part of any Urtext edition is the Critical Notes. In fact, I would say if you have to chose between buying an Urtext score but skipping the notes, or printing an IMSLP scan for free and buying the Critical Notes, the latter will do you a lot more good. That’s why it’s so irritating when the notes aren’t included, as with the Breitkopf Brahms parts, or are ridiculously truncated, as with the Breitkopf Schumann Symphonies.

But what about the promise of “important new insights and discoveries?” One might be surprised to find Roger Norrington, of all people, sounding a little sanguine about the revelatory qualities of the new editions:

“It must be said that a great many of the new discoveries in the Beethoven text are not very audible. Although they all contribute a great deal to our understanding of the work. What is so audible are questions of tempo, balance, phrasing and dynamics, and fortunately these were all possible to change even before we had such a good edition as the new one.”

Take for instance my spiffy new set of Beethoven 9 parts. There are two BIG changes from past editions. In bar 81 of the first mvt, Del Mar changes then 2nd note in the flute and oboe from b-flat to d. The d is in the sources, so it’s something people have known about for generations. It’s also obviously wrong. Well, who am I to say it’s wrong. It sure sounds wrong, it doesn’t fit the patter, it doesn’t the sequence and it doesn’t match the recap or, most importantly, the variation four bars later.

Here’s the “traditional” reading with the b-flat

Here’s the Del Mar reading as recorded by my former teacher David Zinman

Now, here’s the variation four bars later (same in both versions).


I’m just not persuaded the D can be right*. We know Beethoven wrote in incredible haste, and that he wasn’t the most meticulous of proofreaders.  I’m sure it has to be b-flat, and my parts have been changed to that effect (Mr Del Mar addresses this question at length not only in the Critical Notes, but also in his essay “Editing Beethoven” quoted below.)

The other big change is in the Finale **.  Starting in bar 532, both new critical editions insist that the horn vamp before the big return of “Freude schooner Goetterfunken” is not as we’ve always heard it:


But instead, full of weird ties. Is this Beethoven’s evocation of atrial fibrillation or is it a mistake? I took out the ties:


Beethoven has been working with that motive for a long time, and it’s not so much that he abandons it here that bothers me (although it bothers), but the strangely haphazard pattern in which it is disrupted. This strikes me as very un-Beethovenian. Of course, this is what is great about a Critical Edition. When you see something in the score that looks and sounds completely batty, or represents an important change from the text as you’ve known it, you can find out why the editor has suggested it. Once you understand the editors reasons, you can make an informed choice as the whether to accept their reading or to alter it to something that makes more sense to you.

But is this naughty? Do we owe an oath of fealty to the editors of an edition? Mr. Del Mar suggests as much in his interesting article, “Editing Beetoven”

“The curious thing here is this: the Barenreiter edition seems to have become “the thing to be seen to be playing,” though there is apparently no corresponding obligation to adhere to any features- whether details of slurring and staccato, or even the actual notes itself—which distinguish it from any other edition.”

But I think not. We were all brought up to believe that an Urtext edition presents the wishes of a composer without editorial interference or intervention. Without opinion. In fact, most Urtext editions are full of opinion. This is partly because composers are often conflicted about certain aspects of their own music- there may be more than one legitimate reading of a given passage, where a composer tried different solutions. This is a particular problem with Mahler, where the “finality’ of many of his works was determined not by his ascribing them a definitive status, but simply by the fact of his death- final versions of all the Mahler symphonies would have all changed had he lived to conduct them more times.

Beethoven could be indecisive about relatively important structural issues. He went back and forth on the question of repeating the Da Capo and Trio of the Scherzo of his Fifth Symphony. Of course, for years, we all knew it to go from the Trio to the spooky restatement of the Scherzo. In the last 15 years, however, we’ve learned that at one point, he did write an “ending” to take one back to the beginning of the Scherzo for a repeat of Scherzo and Trio before going to the pizzicato section. This is the same form as the Scherzo’s of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, so it’s certainly possible. Brown’s edition facilitates both versions, with or without Da Capo, while Del Mar is unequivocal- there can be no repeat of the Da Capo. I tried the repeat in my last performance of the piece- this led to complete disaster when the principal bassoon forgot the plan and went on to the coda. Even the critic noticed something had gone wrong. Was this Fate punishing me for disregarding Beethoven’s final wishes?

But, my former teacher David Zinman takes that repeat on his highly regarded recording:

Of course, while the record label and publisher (Arte Nova and Barenreiter, respectively) loudly trumpeted Zinman’s use of Del Mar’s edition, I wonder what Mr. Del Mar made of  Mr. Zinman’s recordings? Surely he was delighted to be the beneficiary of Maestro Zinman’s advocacy?

“Or, as in the extreme case of David Zinman, he may embellish the text with fantasies and cadenzas of his own invention while at the same time proudly proclaiming on the album cover that his is the “World Premiere Record- ing according to the New Bärenreiter Edition”. The extent of humbug, even rank false pre-tences, here is breathtaking. Yet while his recording has been lambasted in the German press as a ‘Travestie’, no British critic, as far as I am aware, has yet admonished Zinman for his outrageous liberties with Beethoven’s text, preferring instead to hail the freshness and originality (this indisputable, perhaps) of his ‘interpretations’.

Mercifully, Zinman remains exceptional. But the inescapable issue remains that eminent conductors such as Abbado, Haitink and Norrington proclaim the virtues of the new edition while rejecting some of its chief features.”


I guess he didn’t enjoy the discs….

But, I suppose I still think it is the conductor’s job to read all scores with a mixture of humility and skepticism. Humility to welcome new discoveries and to stand ready to abandon comfortable assumptions about a piece you know well. Skepticism to make sure that you’re confident that you’re putting the music first, and not treating the text as somehow divinely revealed. In the same article, Mr Del Mar takes some conductors to task for blindly accepting the obviously wrong suggestion by Sander Wilkens in the Criticial Edition of Mahler 1 that the bass solo be played by the whole section (I completely agree with him on this point). Editors, however knowledgable, can be blinded by ego, opinion, personal taste or ambition. The critical notes are where we can test an editor’s reasoning. At the end of the day, we’re there to be an advocate for the wishes of the composer, not the editor. It’s when the editor starts thinking of the text as theirs, rather than the composer’s, that we’re on shaky ground (let me be clear- I’m not accusing any editor of thinking this way in general, but perhaps when certain points come in for sharp discussion, the line between creator and expert becomes harder to maintain). Ultimately, the only real Urtext is not what one finds in one edition or one manuscript, but in the whole breadth of sources, research, discussion, intuition and discussion one can call upon.


* I basically say that the D in bar 81 of the 9th is wrong because it has to be wrong. Del Mar says much the same thing about the timpani writing in the last bar of Beethoven 5 (which I’ve discussed at length here). In the case of the D, I waited until we’d read it in rehearsal to change it- just to hear it with the band in the context of everything else I was doing.

** There is one other BIG change in the Barenreiter- in this case a change from the first printing. Mr Del Mar has now decided that all sections are to be repeated on the Da Capo, something he argued against in the original publication. His reasons are clearly articulated in the Critical Notes. Since the parts I have are from the 2nd printing, they have the extra repeats, but my 1st edition score doesn’t. I’m all for repeats (and I think I take every other repeat in every Beethoven symphony), I’m not quite convinced this is a settled matter, and it does make the movement VERY long and exhausting, not to mention more repetitious than anything else he wrote. I may try them next time, but only if circumstances are ideal.



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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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12 comments on “Urtext myths 4: Whose score is it anyway?”

  1. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    thank maestro. I save money on editors and just give some general performance notes to the conductor and players, because I trust them. =)

  2. tyner white

    “It’s when the editor starts thinking of the text as theirs, rather than the composer’s, that we’re on shaky ground…”

    Listening– as much as performing, or humming or singing from memory, or thinking tunes in one’s head– is an art that requires practice, and if scores are not available beforehand and simultaneously to help the listener learn how to think-along, the listener will generally, from listening alone, not be able to “learn” any piece, leading to the customary rejection of new music (perceived by the public as “unusable” or by individuals as unusable by them). While you sit there trying to keep your attention on it (without the “tracks” provided by a score) yiou forget and start thinking of something else, maybe some interesting tidbit from the program notes or tomorrow morning’s appointment or whatever.

    (My perspective is that of one who, as child, was interested in piano playing, suffered a hand injury, and developed in other directions instead, except my father at age five allowed me to run the record player and I became specialized toward listening. I didn’t realize till age 15 that scores were available at a library to borrow and read while listening. Most children never learn that this resource is available.)

    I assume all readers here are familiar with the story of IMSLP being sued by International Edition and there being almost nothing there after 1930 (the name Shostakovitch does not appear in the index). If as Ken rightly says we are the advocates of the composer, not the publisher, think what it means that listeners are barricaded from preparing themselves to “ride” new music successfully and develop in-time familiarity with living composers whose message won’t be promulgated till after decades when much of its “relevance” is unresearchable.

    An example: Charles Wuorinen’s 8th Symphony is available as half of a disc under $20 but the score costs $175. I looked up Wuorinen and found an interview where he praises James Levine for the “leadership” (or guts) to put it on the Boston SO program (maybe dislodging a Beethoven or VW 8th that the public wants) but I wonder why he passed up the opportunity to complain of this blockading public familiarization with the work and, despite IMSLP, widespread unawareness of score-reading as an avenue to comprehension and USE of symphony material.

  3. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt


    1) not many people in the world would have the skill or care to read a Wuorinen score in this world, and it wound’nt change their mind about his music, so its not a priority. The market is what it is.

    2) C Wuorinen deserves to get as much money as he can from his efforts, and charging 175 $ seems to me very fair considering the small market, and the fact that most of the customers out there would be institutions of higher learning who a) needed to have it in their catalog b) have the budget for it.

    Want expensive scores? Try a university library. They may let you study it.

    as for this:

    “While you sit there trying to keep your attention on it (without the “tracks” provided by a score) yiou forget and start thinking of something else, maybe some interesting tidbit from the program notes or tomorrow morning’s appointment or whatever.”

    maybe thats just what the composer wants you to do. Have you ever contemplated that?

  4. Allen Carl Larson

    What do you make of the oboe note, C natural, in measure 192 of Brahms 4th symphony, First Movement? It doesn’t belong to the preceding phrase, and a single note like that one is not used in the succeeding similar phrase for the oboe. My contention is that it is a copyist’s mistake from years and years ago that has been
    passed down from edition to edition. That C is the final note of the Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon phrase that precedes it and if a page turn happened to be involved, I think the copyist may have put the C in the wrong place and then forgot to erase it before the score was printed. Any thoughts?

  5. Chris Westover

    I think Henle has fixed this…. If you go to the study score link on their USA webpage, you can download the commentary, DE/ENG. Is this not the complete editorial notes? I assume it is since I know the changes in this edition are extraordinarily minimal.


  6. Sua

    Can you recommend a full set of Schumann Symphonies as a full conductor’s score?
    Preferable clothbound urtext? It is to present as a gift to a conductor.
    Thank you for your advice.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    The recent Breitkopf Urtext edition is available as a boxed set of study scores in small format, paper bound. It would be worth contacting them to see if they do a clothbound edition, too.

  8. Michael Keyton

    Thanks for the link to the Toscanini. I found it interesting that he is using quadruple winds and having the horns play “bells up” in the 4th mvt of the 5th. Could he have acquired this from his association with Mahler? On his studio recordings, I do not think he is doubling the wind parts, and have never read of him doing so.
    Thanks for your commentary from a conductor?’s perspective.
    There seems to also be a continuity issue here. Since instruments have improved since Beethoven’s time, how much of the reorchestration do you support? For instance in the Eroica, stopped tones with the ?

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