An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. Other kinds of editions distinct from urtext are facsimile and interpretive editions, discussed below.
The sources for an urtext edition include the autograph (that is, the manuscript produced in the composer's hand), hand copies made by the composer's students and assistants, the first published edition, and other early editions. Since first editions often include misprints, a particularly valuable source for urtext editions is a copy of the first edition that was hand-corrected by the composer. Where the sources are few, or misprint-ridden, or conflicting, the task of the urtext editor becomes difficult. Cases where the composer had bad penmanship (for example, Beethoven), or revised the work after publication, likewise create difficulties.
A fundamental problem in urtext editing is how to present variant readings. If the editor includes too few variants, this restricts the freedom of the performer to choose. Yet including unlikely variants from patently unreliable sources likewise serves the performer badly. Where the editor must go farthest out on a limb is in identifying misprints or scribal errors. The great danger—not at all hypothetical—is that an interestingly eccentric or even inspired choice on the composer's part will be obliterated by an overzealous editor. Responsible editors identify with footnotes all places where the notes have been altered in an urtext edition.
As cellist Dimitry Markevitch has said, "an ideal [urtext] edition cannot be achieved; only an honest one can be the goal."
Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which simply present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music. The urtext edition adds value to what the performer could get from a facsimile by integrating evidence from multiple sources and exercising informed scholarly judgment. Urtext editions are also easier to read than facsimiles. Thus, facsimile editions are intended mostly for use by scholars, along with performers who pursue scholarship as part of their preparation.
Urtext editions also differ from interpretive editions, which offer the editor's personal opinion on how to perform the work. This is indicated by providing markings for dynamics and other forms of musical expression, which supplement or replace those of the composer. In extreme cases, interpretive editions have deliberately altered the composer's notes or even deleted entire passages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many famous performing musicians provided interpretive editions, including Harold Bauer, Artur Schnabel, and Ignacy Paderewski. Today, teachers seldom recommend interpretive editions to their students, preferring urtext editions. However, in the days before recorded music, such editions served the purpose of helping students obtain inspiration from the performing practice of leading artists, and even today they retain value for this purpose.
A compromise between urtext and interpretive editing is an edition in which the editor's additions are typographically distinguished (usually with parentheses, size, greyscale or detailed in accompanying prose) from the composer's own markings. Such compromise editions are particularly useful for early music, where the interpretation of the musical notation of long ago often poses difficulties.
The very term "urtext" has fallen into disfavor among some critics and scholars, probably because it is perceived as overselling what an edition can accomplish. Plainly, the fidelity with which a printed edition can represent the composer's intentions must vary, and is never total. Moreover, the composer's intentions themselves are not completely well defined.
Yet performers of classical music use the term "urtext" frequently, because they usually value urtext editions highly. It is plain that knowing the composer's intent is only the starting point in the preparation of an effective musical performance; a great deal of independent thought and practice is necessary as well. But most musicians today would judge that the process should begin with the most faithful version of the composer's intent that scholarship can muster.
Web sites of publishers who issue urtext editions: