Bach: Editions, Editions and more Editions

by Stephen Clark

There is little doubt that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is some of the most loved repertoire that we, as flute players, have at our disposal. Often though, as much joy as this music brings flute players around the world, many musicians often feel intimidated and scared to play the music of this great master. Perhaps fuelled by concerns of negative judgement of our interpretation, many flute players – amateurs, students and those who regard themselves as professional players, will not always be hugely forthcoming in programming the sonatas or even more so the solo flute Partita of Bach.

Over the last 2 decades or so, the classical music community in general has become far more aware of period performance practises and with the springing up and establishment of many period performance orchestras and ensembles in cities around the world, period instrument performance has had a wonderful resurgence. I’m sure almost all will agree that it is truly enlightening to experience this music being performed in such an insightful way that we believe represents more closely what the composer intended. The downside being that many modern players now do not feel sufficiently knowledgable with regards to the intricate details of performance practise to publicly share their own interpretation.

The purpose of this article is not to advise anyone about performance practise or even to share ideas of interpretation. Instead, my goal is to alert readers to the different types of editions that exist of these works. I will not be sharing my recommended of particular editions either – that is a very personal decision. But I hope after reading this you will feel more comfortable and confident in making decisions about which to choose and which benefits YOU and your performance the most.

A quick google search or scroll through one of the flute retailers online websites tells us pretty quickly that the choice of Bach sonata editions available to us is vast. REALLY VAST! It is truly hard to know where to begin. There will be some publishers whom we instantly trust and others that perhaps we have not heard of. Should we immediately disregard the unfamiliar ones? The same can be said for editors – some famous flute playing names who have added their own directions to these pieces. Why is there an editor though? Why do we need to “change” what Bach wrote? There are many questions. Again, the answer to these will not necessarily be found here in this article. But we will be able to approach the questions and determine some more informed answers.


Generally speaking there are four categories of publications:

1). Original Manuscript
2). Scholarly editions
3). Performers editions
4). Urtext editions

Each of them serves a specific purpose and each of them, in my opinion comes with its own set of pros and cons.


The original manuscript is exactly what you would assume it is – the original copy in the composers hand (although in Bach’s life he often employed copyists for this. It is not uncommon for the first few bars to be in his hand before his scribe or copyist takes over. If you look at some of his original manuscripts you can see this quite clearly). If we take the flute Partita as an example, it is very exciting to see this very first copy and this is easily available online (IMSLP has it for example). Some may immediately ask the question “if we have an original manuscript, why do we need any other edition?”. It’s a fair question! But like so many things in life it’s just not quite that simple unfortunately. If you have a quick Google for yourself, you will probably think the same as me when I first looked at this copy – “Wow it’s messy!”. Often original manuscripts are not so easy to read. In our modern times, we are used to nice, clean and legible sheet music. This, and many original manuscripts is none of these things. It is also not uncommon for these original manuscripts to include some errors – perhaps the odd baroque “typo”. It was also very common in the period to not include all the information we are now used to ad expecting. Articulation, slurs and dynamics where very often not written into the parts.

Manuscript of J.S.Bach’s Partita for flute solo

Performers of the time would be sufficiently knowledgeable to add their own. Of course, the same is applied to ornamentation – the personal embellishments would be left by the composer to the performer to add their own unique and expressive additions to their music. So as fascinating as these copies are (and undoubtedly worth having a good look at), they are often not the most practical to use in concert.


Scholarly editions involve an editor who has studied and analysed the original
manuscript and often also other primary sources that may be available. They will make informed decisions based on their research and produce a manuscript for us to play. They will usually include in these publications the information explaining why they formed these ideas and made these particular decisions. This can be useful for us to form and shape our own ideas and opinions – those of agreement or otherwise.


Performers editions are perhaps the most frequently used and easiest available to us. Publications where someone has made their own edits to the music in an attempt to make them more performable. Slurs, dynamics and ornamentation is often added right there for us. This allows us to have a complete performance ready to without any trouble.

We are able to play the music without too much thought to the practises of the time. But perhaps this limits us as well? How do we know the editor has made sensible and
informed decisions? When was it published and when where these decisions made? Is this information still up to to date and accurate? Do these decisions, which have
beenmade by someone else, allow us to feel good in the interpretation we will give?

There are many publications now claiming to be “URTEXT EDITIONS”. The concept
behind “Urtext” is that we are provided with a printed version of the music which
represents as closely as possible what the composer originally intended. Again though, it sadly is not quite that straightforward. Once again we must rely on the editors to make these decisions for us – to interpret the manuscript and decipher and resolve any issues.

Often composers themselves made more than one version. Or perhaps no manuscript in the composer’s own hands exist but several in other peoples do. So which manuscripts are the publishers using to form the edition? It is generally accepted that publishers often make many more changes to “Urtext” editions that perhaps many people realise – often so as not to scare potential customers away with things that may appear unusual in the score.

There is no doubt that the enormous choices and editions now available to us of the
music of Bach can create confusion, doubt and many unresolved questions. This
ultimately can create a sense of intimidation when looking to perform these great pieces.

But that’s just it………despite all of this we must remember that these pieces truly are
GREAT and serve in many ways as the cornerstone of our baroque repertoire. By
understanding the different kinds of editions available and the purpose and intent of the publisher of each, we as performers can approach these choices in a more organised and less overwhelming fashion. Being clear in our choices allows us to make more informed decisions about how to approach this incredible music and give ourselves a stronger chance to be a more courageous. more confident and more informed musician…..and ultimately, find more joy in our music making.

Stephen Clark

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Stephen Clark studied at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland, Royal Northern College of Music, and with Sir James Galway. He is currently completing his Doctoral studies at University of Alabama. A winner of several international competitions, he has given recital and concerto performances in over 120 countries. Stephen has given masterclasses all over the world and is the author of The Flute Gym. He is a Yamaha Artist.