Urtext in Music and Literature


A strange word: urtext.  The first time I heard it, I was a student in Vienna and thought it must be Hungarian.  It’s not.  “Ur” derives from German and means “original.”  “Text” is the English word for text (no kidding!).  Urtext can be controversial, but I like it.  As a creative artist, I especially like it.  In music, it refers to a music score that is an exact copy of the original score by the composer, i.e. without publisher or conductor deletions, additions, notes, etc.  The controversy arises from the notion of composer intent which some believe can be found in the urtext score.  Composers were not always meticulous about recording their intent on score paper, however.  Sometimes, they wrote so fast there was barely time to get the notes down on the score paper or for their copyists to copy out the parts.    

My scientist friend sent me a music review recently of a recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.  The reviewer had commented that the conductor had “eschewed the sarcastic wit and self-satire” in the music for a deeply emotional reading of the score.  The recording was from the 1950’s, which was still during the time conductors eschewed the urtext for their own “interpretations” of what a composer intended in the score.  This practice was quite common in the first half of the last century when conductors were all-powerful and composers (who had little power) rarely if ever commented on it — the living ones, that is. 

As a writer, urtext means that what I write stands and won’t be changed in any way by anyone else.  This is not a joke.  I have no problems with an editor suggesting changes, asking questions, challenging me to write better.  What I have a problem with is when someone takes my work and changes it without my permission or consulting with me in any way.  I’ve encountered in the past people who have believed that whatever writers put on paper is fair game for them to play with, change, cut, etc. without respect for the writer or the work put into the piece.  Call it a pet peeve: I consider it disrespectful to do that whether to writers or composers. 

Writing screenplays became an exercise in total frustration for me because in the movie business, writers have very little power and directors, producers and actors all feel free to change whatever the writer has written.  Sometimes they even feel free to change writers on a project so that the original writer does not get screen credit unless the project returns to him or her (this has happened), or the writer had negotiated screen credit in the original contract.  Screenplays in Hollywood are generally written by committee (this is not an original statement!).  The only way a writer can retain control of the screenplay is to be also director and producer on the project.

In the theater, plays have been edited by directors for length or language.  Shakespeare often suffers this fate.  However, if the playwright still lives, his or her plays are usually left alone.  During rehearsals before a play’s premiere, with the playwright in attendance, actors and director often make constructive suggestions, creating a dynamic working environment that heightens creativity (or so I’ve heard).  But after the premiere, unless the playwright makes the changes, the play stands as is.

If the creative writer wants complete control of his or her work, then write novels, short stories, poetry or creative nonfiction.  But be prepared to work with editors and defend the creative choices made within the work.  Definitely do not write screenplays! 

Composers face a friendlier music world now.  Conductors and other musicians tend to focus more on what the composer wrote in the score and do their best to follow it, i.e. prefer urtext whenever possible.  In 2048, Evan Quinn, in Perceval, follows this philosophy and champions the composers of his time…..

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