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An Urtext edition is one that adheres as much as possible to the original composer's manuscript (or when that is lost, early editions). Of course, it is a good thing to know the score not yet interpreted by editors, and it seems better that the players are allowed to decide themselves.

But here are my doubts:

  • The editors may help the reader to better decide the dynamic and articulation. These markings may have been regarded to be trivial and well known by the composer's time, so were left out by the composer, but may be mistaken by modern readers. For example, Urtext editions of J.S. Bach's keyboard work usually show no slur, but does that mean Bach always intended non-legato? No.

  • The composer's manuscript may contain errors. In parallel passages, the composer may have drawn a slur in the first occurrence, but forgot to do so in the second passage, and the Urtext edition reproduces such discrepancies, making the reader to wonder there is some significance. I recall this is the case of Beethoven's (so-called) "Appassionata" sonata's first movement.

  • In a Baroque piece, notation is sloppy. For example, a two-voice passage may be notated as single voice. And a short note may be notated as longer note, so as to save space of rests (see Charles Rosen, Beethoven's Piano Sonatas). In such cases, I believe, it is appropriate that editors modify into modern notation according to their judgment.

Considering these, I find the concept of "reproducing the original intention" problematic. What are advantages and disadvantages of using Urtext editions?

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    If you want to play the music "as edited by somebody", use their edition. If you want to see what the composer actually wrote, use an urtext edition. I don't see any "problem" here - just do what you prefer. A good urtext edition will contain a set of critical notes showing difference between sources, etc - that information should give the answer to several of your "problematic" issues. Note, there can be issues with urtext editions posted to IMSLP and similar sites, because the critical notes are still in copyright and are therefore removed, though the music itself is copyright-free. – user19146 Jun 29 '17 at 16:29
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    Personally, I would rather have five (or even more) different editions of the same piece and make up my own mind about the performance details, rather than just accepting what one editor tells me to do. But that isn't so useful unless you have enough knowledge to make an objective evaluation the differences. – user19146 Jun 29 '17 at 16:36
  • I suggest removing the words "do you think" from the bold question because that makes it sound like you are asking for opinion, which is not encouraged here. – Todd Wilcox Jun 29 '17 at 17:44
  • @ToddWilcox Copy that. – Aminopterin Jun 29 '17 at 17:48
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    I seem to remember my String Quartet tutor saying: "Remember - its the editors job to change what the composer wrote" – JimM Jun 30 '17 at 9:28
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In a nutshell:

Considering these, I find the concept of "reproducing the original intention" problematic.

And yet that is what editions try to do rather than the Urtext which tries reproducing the original expression of the intention.

Editions are one interpretation remote of the Urtext. Basically you are leaving decisions to somebody else.

I have to admit that particular in case of Bach, I rather prefer the Urtexts for violin music because they are straightforward and uncluttered and focus on the content rather than the execution of music. I consider it my own privilege to match the execution to the intent. In case of the violin solo pieces, quite often there is just one position and fingering that stands out for execution without having to spell it out.

Funnily, when transferring it to the guitar (with its quite different tuning), this sometimes still is the case. And of course nowadays the piano is more prevalent than two-manual harpsichords. So quite often editors already adapt the music to instruments not present when it was written.

Do you want to have this done for you or would you rather exercise your own personal freedoms in making the requisite choices?

  • I was going to write basically the same thing w.r.t. the Bach Cello Suites. Who cares what Bach exactly wanted for articulation -- I'm the one performing it :-) . – Carl Witthoft Jun 30 '17 at 11:41
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One point -- my (musicological) understanding of what "Urtext" means does not include the idea that you don't account for variora and mistakes. If you are going to the trouble of producing a modern printing of a score, then you do take responsibility for making sure the notes are consistent and correct (as far as you can). So you needn't worry about an Urtext reproducing obvious typos or slips of the pen; musicologists spend many many hours trying to clean that stuff up.

Some serious early-music aficionados like to play from facsimile editions, which are just photoengravings of old printed scores from the period of composition. With those, you're really on your own!

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