Urtext Sheet Music: Why Do You Need It?

Excerpt from Beethoven's Piano Sonata opus 101, autograph manuscript
Excerpt from Beethoven's Piano Sonata opus 101, autograph manuscript

What is hidden behind the notes of the score?

There is merit in the practice of attempting to understand how a composer wrote his music. There are always details hidden within any score that lead you through the way the piece was intended to be played. If you gather information about a particular composer's performance practices you can reach a greater understanding of his or her works. The historical background of the notation in a piece is also an important clue into what the composer was hoping to convey. Using these tools you can develop a better understanding of any composer from Bach to Debussy.


If you have ever tried to compose a piece of music, or to simply write down the notes for an existing piece, you know how subjective the writing of a piece can be. You may not compose your own music, but if you engage in the exercise of writing down an existing piece, you will easily see that there is more than one way to skin a cat. In addition to the existing notes, you may add tips on the articulation of a measure, or on the dynamics of the piece. One piece could easily be interpreted in multiple ways given these variations.

Unreliable piano scores?

But the fact that a piano score can always be read in many different ways must not make you stop looking for all the subtle hints in early scores - this is the mistaken approach that led 19th century editors to feel the need to "fill in the gaps" left by earlier composers. Because of this, you can't be absolutely sure that the articulation, dynamic and pedalling signs in your  Beethoven sheet music of, say, the sonatas, always comes from the composer.

That is, unless you are using an edition which has made a point of getting rid of all these superfluous instructions, often quite at odds with an historically accurate performance. Urtext editions do just that. Of course, there will still be instances when there are doubts as to what the composer meant, but at least, the modern, scientifically prepared Urtexts go as far as possible towards presenting an original text.

Changing traditions of music notation

Changes throughout the centuries have effected the hints and clues composers have left about how a piece should be played. You can very easily compare the works of someone like Rachmaninoff with Bach to see the different ways that these trails of breadcrumbs have been left. In today's world, composers are less likely to leave their music open to the performer's interpretation. This can be traced to the fact that when composers like Mozart were creating their pieces, they were geared very closely to the audience of the day. Composers like Beethoven expected to share their music with a specific audience in society. It was also expected that anyone performing the music would have a deep understanding of the culture and the audience, because they were of those times. While composers of old must have surely hoped that their music would live eternally, they did not necessarily prepare for that eventuality in the way that they wrote their music down.

Composers today seem to write with stricter guidelines. Their music could be played for anyone, anywhere in the world. So, they are less inclined to leave their pieces open for performers. They want their music to be performed as it was written and intended and are very clear about this. Today's composers are not operating in the same traditional musical world that composers from the past were. In light of this, they make a greater effort to preserve their pieces as they envisage them.

Using Urtext piano scores to understand the composer's intentions

With this in mind, if you truly wish to understand a long gone composer you need to understand the world they lived in and the people they performed for at the time, you should gain an understanding of what motivated them to write a certain piece and educate yourself about that time period. Every score will have subtle details that will provide clues as to the composer and how they wished it played, be it a score from Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin or anyone else. If you want to be able to look for these clues, you should make sure that the sheet music that you are using is a reliable Urtext score.

Share your thoughts

What do you think is the main problem when reading and interpreting a piano score? Apart from basic notes and rhythms, which are the most important clues that you look for? What kind of help with interpretation and performance issues do you expect in an edition of a piano masterwork by Mozart or Beethoven? Share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below.

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