Wiener Urtext and the Urtext tradition

The Wiener Urtext Edition was founded in 1972 by the publishing houses B. Schott´s Söhne (today Schott Music), of Mainz, and Universal Edition, of Vienna. The objective of this joint enterprise is to make musical works from the baroque to the early modern period available for practical use in critical editions, so-called Urtext editions. The essential aim is to offer a musical text based on the sources, free of later additions and alterations, which comes as close as possible to the intentions of the composer.

The standard musical literature of the 18th and early 19th century in particular has always suffered from faulty transmission and from adaptation to the vagaries of taste in vogue at any particular time. Many works, for example the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, appeared soon after their composition in faulty or deliberately altered printed editions. In the later 19th century, numerous compositions were disfigured with an abundance of additions (such as phrasing marks and dynamics), or even by direct interventions in the substance of the music itself. The musical text thus "edited" represented the subjective opinions of individual editors - then mostly famous performers - but no longer the intentions of the composer.

A striking example for this is the Piano Sonata Op. 109 by Ludwig van Beethoven, where many editions - including even some of the most recent - continue the bass octaves beginning in bar 65 of the second movement up to the end of bar 69. Admittedly, Beethoven himself had originally foreseen this in his autograph, but even before the engraving of the first edition, the bass doublings were again removed from the middle of bar 68 onwards. He probably intended by doing this to support the simultaneously proceeding diminuendo by thinning out the sound. Publishers who supplement the lower octaves in the relevant bars, making reference to the limitations of the keyboards of the pianos of the day, overlook, however, that Beethoven had already reckoned with the availability of the low E from the Sonata Op. 101 onwards, and that the limitation of the keyboard compass is thus no argument for octave doubling of the bass notes. The reintroduction of the bass octaves in bars 68 and 69 thus misrepresents Beethoven´s intention of supporting the diminuendo dynamics with the structure of the sound, making an authentic interpretation impossible.

The traditional so-called 'performance editions' continued to be produced well into the 20th century, even although the first objections were already being raised during the time of their greatest popularity. Thus, between 1895 and 1899, the Berlin Academy of Arts had a series of famous compositions, including the piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, published under the title 'Urtext classischer Musikwerke' ('Urtext of Classic Musical Works'), with a musical text freed of all arbitrary ingredients. The term 'Urtext' was born, and was to be used from then on to designate all editions which are free of subjective additions and true to the sources.

Certainly, there was still a long way to go from these early attempts to our modern Urtext editions. One of the first to affiliate himself with this new way of editing was Heinrich Schenker (1867-1935). His studies of the original sources of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, most of all of the surviving autographs, became the basis of his now legendary Urtext edition of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, which appeared between 1922 and 1934 in the Universal Edition in Vienna. Heinrich Schenker can thus be considered the forefather of the Wiener Urtext Edition. To him we owe an essential step, which cannot be overestimated as a precursor for the principles of the Wiener Urtext Edition.

At its foundation in 1972, the Wiener Urtext Edition was able, half a century later, to build almost directly on Schenker´s pioneering work. Its co-founder Erwin Ratz (1898-1973) had in 1945, following the rediscovery of important sources, comprehensively revised the Schenker edition of the Beethoven sonatas. Ratz is thus the connecting link in the tradition of Urtext editions which has been active in Vienna since the beginning of the 20th century.

After the devastating destruction of the Second World War, to which many valuable sources of musical works had fallen victim, a new conservationist mode of thought arose in musicology and musical practice. Under its influence, numerous complete editions were published and new and refined editorial methods were developed. These had a lasting effect on the generation of Karl Heinz Füssl (1924-1992) and Hans-Christian Müller (1935-1993), who took over the leadership of the Wiener Urtext Edition after Ratz´s death. They both worked as editors on renowned complete editions, and brought their wealth of experience as editors, musicologists and musicians into the Wiener Urtext Edition.

After the deaths of Karl Heinz Füssl and Hans-Christian Müller, the editorial direction of the Wiener Urtext Edition was taken over by Rainer Mohrs (Schott Music, Mainz) and Reinhold Kubik (Universal Edition, Vienna). Since 1996, the general editorship has been in the hands of the musicologist Jochen Reutter.