Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven Creativity: His Work Habits

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven Creativity: His Work Habits

Article excerpt

The romantic model of creativity, with its attendant notion of divine inspiration, retains - in spite of scholarship to the contrary - its seductive hold on the public imagination. As mentioned in Part One of this article, the romantic myth has created a particularly superficial view of Beethoven s creative process, despite the fact that so much evidence has remained behind to document it. This superficial understanding is due on one level to the illegibility of his handwriting, which is taken to symbolize - in a confused way - the process itself. Writers also point to the thousands of pages of sketches, and thereby suggest that Beethoven had to struggle with the demons of the commonplace as he composed.

Yet, as Douglas Johnson straightforwardly states at the beginning of a scholarly tome on Beethoven's sketches, "There is nothing mysterious about sketches."' And there is even less mystery about Beethoven's methods of composition. Many of these were noticed by his contemporaries; given the public nature of some of them - such as sketching while on walks in the countryside - it would have been difficult not to observe them.

In this part of the essay, five aspects of Beethoven's working habits are discussed: his fondness for composing outdoors, his composition at the fortepiano, his use of sketchbooks, his own witty way of reinterpreting chance events in his music, and his attitudes towards writing down his works and towards rewriting them.

Beethoven's fondness for sketching while on walks was frequently noted by his contemporaries, particularly in accounts from his last decade. In a letter of July 20, 1817, he wrote his friend Nanette Streicher in Baden:

If you go to the old ruins, remember that Beethoven has often lingered there. If you wander through the secluded fir-woods, remember that Beethoi 'en has often poetized or, as the saying goes, composed there.1

In 1818 August von Kloeber painted the composer and had occasion to observe Beethoven at work with his pocket sketchbooks:

I observed Beethoven several times on my walks in Môdling, and it was most interesting to see him, a sheet of music paper and a stump of a pencil in his hand, stop often as though listening, look up and down, and then write a few notes on the paper. Dont told me that when I saw him thus, I should never speak to him or take any notice of him, because that would make him embarrassed or ei 'en unpleasant.3

J.R. Schultz, an Englishman who visited the composer in September, 1823, accompanied the composer on one of these compositional walks:

On our way to the valley, he often stopped short, and pointed out to me its most beautiful spots, or noticed the defects of the new buildings. At other times he seemed quite lost in himself, and only hummed in an unintelligible manner. I understood, however, that this was the way he composed, and I also learnt, that he never writes down one note till he has formed a clear design for the whole piece.4

Dr. Spiker, the Berlin librarian, met Beethoven in September, 1826, and reported:

It was very interesting to see bis musical sketchbook which, as be told us, he always carried with him on his walks in order to jot down with his lead pencil any musical idea which might occur to him. It was full of individual measures of music, suggested figures, etc. Several large books of this kind, in which longer fragments of music had been written down in ink, lay on a desk beside his pianoforte.5

Finally, Dr. Warwuch, one of Beethoven's physicians, reported on May 27, 1827, that Beethoven had continued these walks through 1826:

In the late fall of the year just passed (1826), Beethoven felt an irresistible urge, in view of the uncertain state of his health, to go to the country to recuperate. . . . Often, with rare endurance, he worked at his compositions on a wooded hillside and his work done, still aglow with reflection, he would not infrequently run about for hours in the most inhospitable circumstances for days and even weeks at a time. …

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