1923: Germany in chaos, the occupation of the Rhineland and Ruhr area (the main industrial district in Germany), inflation, separatism, a right-wing revolt in Munich. At the same time in Augsburg, song sheets with “Auf, du junger Wandersmann” and other folk songs come off the printing press. How do such incongruences exist? This period was marked by stark contrasts. The country, which felt humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, rebelled and threatened to fall apart. And elsewhere, young people came together in a country loving youth organisation called the “Wandervögel”, cultivating companionship, singing and making music, the “simple life”. One of these people was Karl Vötterle, born in Augsburg in 1903, not yet of age, without professional training. But with an idea. The “Wandervögel” needed sheet music. This was a reach for the stars because he had never seen the inside of a publishing house before, but also a reach for the stars in that the publisher derived its name “Bärenreiter” from the tiny star “Alkor” which is part of the Great Bear constellation.
The simple song collections were bound in his parents’ living room and sent out from there. first publications were entitled “Finkensteiner Blätter” after the small town of Finkenstein in Czechoslovakia, where Vötterle took part in a singing week with the charismatic Walther Hensel. It was a few months later in April, when the young Bärenreiter founder turned 21, that the company was officially registered.
“Why shouldn’t I serve my apprenticeship with me as my own boss” asked Vötterle and gradually expanded the publishing programme to include early music with works by Leonhard Lechner and Heinrich Schütz, who at the time were only known in specialist circles. And, of course, music by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Four years after Bärenreiter was founded, Vötterle and his loyal first employees left Augsburg and moved to Kassel. His future father-in-law provided a plot of land, the city a loan. From now on, the company grew steadily. Books on music, theology and other subjects were added. The Nazi period did not go by without compromises; Vötterle’s publishing licence was temporarily revoked because of critical essays in the journal “Der Sonntagsbrief”. Skilful action prevented the closure of the publisher.
During the last major bombing raid on Kassel, the Bärenreiter buildings were completely destroyed. A setback to zero hour, a time that many had to live through. But the reconstruction of the publishing house was successful and many new opportunities in the peaceful and free Federal Republic of Germany opened up. The MGG encyclopedia (Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart) earned a great reputation in musicology. Vötterle’s plan to publish complete editions of the great composers finally created the foundation on which the publisher still rests today: gradually the first volumes of the works by Bach, Berlioz, Gluck, Handel, Mozart, Schütz, Schubert, Telemann appeared. Later they were joined by volumes of works by Fauré, Rossini and others. A completely new musicological standard was created through these complete editions, and the ensuing “performing editions” for musicians developed into a worldwide success. The Bärenreiter Urtext label guarantees reliability down to the last slur.
At one point, Bärenreiter had more than 350 employees. Due to the closure of the printing facilities and diverse rationalisations there are currently approximately 100 people working there.
Karl Vötterle died in 1975. His daughter Barbara took over the management, joined shortly after by her husband Leonhard Scheuch.
It was out of the question for this publisher couple to rest on the laurels and merits of the founder. His legacy was built upon; the publishing programme focused on the core aspect – the provision of musicologically sound high-quality editions. At the same time the catalogue was consistently expanded. With the publication of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, edited by Jonathan Del Mar from 1997 onwards, Bärenreiter opened the gateway to hitherto unexplored areas: above all the French music of the Romantic and Impressionist periods, but also works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Elgar and many others that now carry the seal “Bärenreiter Urtext”.
Ongoing since the early years has been the patronage of contemporary music. Eminent composers such as Hugo Distler and Ernst Krenek found their publishing home in Kassel; younger composers represented by Bärenreiter include, amongst others, Dieter Ammann, Beat Furrer, Philipp Maintz, Matthias Pintscher, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Charlotte Seither and Miroslav Srnka.
Where is the Bärenreiter ship bound for? Until the onset of the Corona pandemic, the voyage took place in calm waters. The catastrophe hit the publisher hard because the important performance sector was disrupted worldwide or came to a complete standstill. No concerts, no sheet music sales. Gradually, the waves are becoming more tranquil. Acertain “long covid” effect has not quite been overcome yet.
The transition to the third generation is proceeding without storms. Since 2021 Clemens Scheuch has joined the helm alongside his parents. For many years now, he has gradually taken over tasks in the publishing house. He has made digitalisation one of his top priorities, something that every music publisher must confront.
The family business will continue. Despite being 100 years old, the music publisher is certainly in keeping with the times. With a highly qualified staff Bärenreiter will continue to make its mark.