Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Recent Russian Beethoven Scholars

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Recent Russian Beethoven Scholars

Article excerpt

BEETHOVEN'S MUSIC IS WELL KNOWN IN RUSSIA, but it still has relatively few passionate admirers even among musicians. The roots of this strange situation run deep into the history of Beethoven reception in this country. For a long time, Beethoven was idealized as a cultural hero and as a composer whose music concerned itself mostly with revolutionary deeds and celebrations - with struggles against and glorious victories over supreme forces. He seemed too moralizing to be loved selflessly, yet too familiar to be researched once again. Many Soviet musicologists did write about Beethoven over the years;1 few, however, became Beethoven scholars par excellence. This was possible only through sheer enthusiasm, there being in Russia no society, no periodical, no institute in which one could devote oneself to Beethoven studies.

The most renowned Beethoven scholar of modern Russia was Natan L'vovich Fishman (1909-86), whose work deserves to be more widely known.2 Fishman was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and began his musical career as a talented and hopeful pianist. Tragicomic circumstances upset his concert career in the 1930s,3 but even then the young musician did not think of becoming a musicologist. For most of his life he was a professor of piano at the Musical College of the Moscow Conservatory; in the 1940s he also held an administrative post with the Committee for Artistic Affairs. He was principal conductor at Moscow's Mal'iy Theater from 1943, but proscriptions against "cosmopolites" (in effect, Jews) compelled him to leave this post in 1950. From then until 1971, he was a senior fellow at the State Central (Glinka) Museum for Musical Culture in Moscow.

Enticed by the riches in the Glinka Museum, Fishman began to explore its collections - and so it was that he put his hands on the so-called Wielhorsky Sketchbook of Beethoven.4 He was stunned. No facsimile could convey the effect made on him by the original, with its yellowed paper, faded ink, hasty handwriting, and oil spots - perhaps from the very lamp that illuminated the lines of the Heiligenstadt Testament! Most amazing of all, on the first page of the sketchbook there was a network not of illegible hieroglyphs, but of comprehensible sketches for the Fortepiano Sonata in E-flat Major, Opus 31, no. 3. Fishman, who had played this work many times, was puzzled and intrigued by these sketches. No one commissioned him to decipher them; he began doing so purely out of curiosity. He was not thinking of personal glory, or even of a possible future edition of his work, but he spent every free moment of his time on the Wielhorsky Sketchbook.

Fishman's experience as a pianist, conductor, and arranger of theatrical music must have helped him greatly; it may, in fact, have led him to his most important discovery: a method for transcribing Beethoven's sketches not just literally and mechanically, but critically and intelligently, penetrating into the musical sense of every note. For Fishman, "to decipher means to restore the sounds undoubtedly intended by Beethoven, without in any case adding a single note."5 One of his favorite examples was a fragment from the duetto for soprano, tenor, and orchestra, "Nei giorni tuoi felici," WoO 93, which appears at the bottom of p. 48 of the Wielhorsky Sketchbook (see Example 1, above, for a facsimile of the original). This fragment could easily be misunderstood because of its apparent simplicity, so Fishman, in his 1962 edition of the sketchbook, transcribed it in such a way as to reveal its true meaning (see Example 2, below).6

Such examples demonstrate the importance of comparing transcriptions with originals or facsimiles - making parallel editions of both absolutely essential. Today, this is a universallyrecognized principle of sketchbook editions, but in the 1960s it was not, even among prominent scholars.7 As Fishman wrote twenty years later, "a critique of principles seemed urgently necessary - and in fact, one of the main objectives of the three-volume Moscow edition was precisely to offer a model of an edition that could give every musician, not just the specialist in textual criticism, an opportunity to trace Beethoven's creative process step by step. …

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