The Baroque Urtext Score – A User’s Guide (1)

Further to last week’s post about taking ownership, I thought I might say a few words about this in relation to Urtext scores – of  Bach in particular (click here to view the previous post).

Personally, I wouldn’t want to play Bach in a romantic way, but I can appreciate, respect and even enjoy performances in this style, where the pianist is totally committed to it. You only have to listen to iconoclastic Bach players such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck and Andras Schiff to hear that there are very many different approaches, all of them valid. It’s about taking ownership and believing in what you are doing.

But may we take the absence of performance directions in a score of Bach as carte blanche to do what we want, or are there rules? If so, where do we find them? While some of the answers are indeed implied by clues in the score and others by performance tradition, a lot of the choices are indeed at the discretion of the performer. 

The ultimate intention of all notational details is to reduce the performer’s choice 

From the time of Beethoven onwards, the performer’s choices are much more restricted because the composer’s instructions as to speed, character, articulation and dynamics are usually extremely explicit. So how do we decide what to do with an Urtext edition of Bach where all we see are the notes? What sort of articulations and phrasings ought we to use, how do we decide the dynamics, the tempo and general character? How comforting it must have been for our pianistic forebears to open the Czerny, Selva or Busoni editions (amongst many others) and find answers to all these questions, little realising – probably simply trusting – that because Bach’s staff notation exists side by side with dynamic markings, phrasings and articulations, realisations of ornaments, and so on, all was to be treated as gospel. You played it as per instruction, end of story.

I find this blanket acceptance of, say, fingering even in Urtext editions worrying. Players don’t seem to appreciate that there is usually a sub-editor who deals specifically with fingering, and that whatever gets printed is intended entirely as a guide. Herein lieth the problem. Because the information on the score goes in on a subliminal level, how is even the intelligent player supposed to know that the command “F sharp below middle C, dotted crotchet” is the only “gospel” truth (the word of the composer), and that the marking crescendo, the sforzato accent, and the fingering “3” are from the minds of an editor or two?

Here are some screen shots of the start of the E flat minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48, first in the Kroll edition:

And in the Busoni edition:

…the Urtext edition, of course, having no markings whatever. Now, the crescendo from bar 4, and the direction to play louder from bar 5 are of course implied by the large leap of the tenth in the upper voice, the thicker chords and the arrival of a bass voice. It makes perfect sense to do this on the piano, it would be perverse to do anything much different, actually. But – and this is the point – these are only editorial suggestions.

Can I dispel the myth that the harpsichord is incapable of expression? Simply not true! The skillful harpsichordist uses a variety of touches, and relies on illusion to create expression just as much as we pianists do.


This post is part of a collection on using Baroque urtext scores and interpreting Baroque music at the piano. the following is an index of links to the full collection of posts:

  1. Introduction – A User’s Guide (click here)
  2. Dynamics (click here)
  3. Articulation (click here)
  4. Tempo and Rhythm (click here)

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