Are urtext editions the only legitimate way to access the composer’s musical intentions? Do edited editions inevitably distort the authentic creative voice? 

Bach score

Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1007, Prelude, bars 1–9, as copied by Anna Magdalena Bach

In this extract from the January 2020 issue, cellist Pedro de Alcantara sets himself the task of ‘translating’ Bach’s Cello Suite no.1 as written out by Anna Magdalena Bach

The score is the interface between you and the creative source that is the composer. A Bach autograph demonstrates this principle to perfection, but a beat-up, cheaply printed score of children’s pieces also demonstrates the principle, albeit on a more modest scale – because the children’s pieces, too, flow from a creative source.

Interpretation, execution, style and technique all flow from how you ‘talk’ to a score. This is determined in part by the type of score you use. To give an example, you can read Bach’s Violin Sonatas and Partitas from a facsimile of the autograph, from an urtext edition that aims to reproduce the autograph faithfully in modern notation, or from a performers’ edition with bowings, fingerings and interpretative markings, from a paper edition or from a PDF you read on a computer. The display of information influences your reaction to it; a composition looks and feels different according to how it’s laid out.

There are no known autographs of Bach’s Cello Suites, but a manuscript in his wife’s hand has survived and become a go-to source. Above is the beginning of Suite no.1 as written out by Anna Magdalena Bach. From an autograph to an interpretative edition there are many possible intermediate steps. I took Anna Magdalena’s handiwork and tried, as best I could, to rewrite it in modern style without changing anything. I ran into problems right away, particularly as regards slurs. Looking at the autograph, I couldn’t be absolutely sure where exactly the slurs fell, and how many pitches they encompassed. Also, there seemed to be a pattern to the slurs, except that within the first three lines, slurs were missing in two spots where I expected them to be (bars 3 and 8).

I created an approximation, partly based on educated guesses, partly following some of the musicologists and music printers who preceded me in their effort to ‘translate’ the autograph. My modern score looks streamlined and clean, though a bit bare. 

Then I began tweaking my newly created modern score – that is, I started interpreting and editing it. I added bar numbers, and also – somewhat arbitrarily, and pretentiously – added an accent to the ‘e’ of Prélude (since that’s how the French spell the word). Audaciously, I was correcting Bach’s wife! I added the slurs corresponding to the symmetrical pattern, having made the assumption that Anna Magdalena overlooked or neglected the pattern, or chose to abbreviate things on purpose in the knowledge that performers such as myself would complete the pattern anyway. I added a couple of fingerings, which entail changes of position, thus creating a little bit of a ‘phrasing’ event. Although my additions are fairly innocuous, they do change the original, and they do bring a subjective dimension to the work of reading the score.

To read the full article published in The Strad January 2020 issue, click here to log in or subscribe

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