Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven's Childhood Compositions: A Reappraisal

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven's Childhood Compositions: A Reappraisal

Article excerpt

It is a well known "fact" that Beethoven wrote precisely thirty-two sonatas for fortepiano. Anyone who does not know the exact number need only turn to any of several well-known editions to find the thirty-two sonatas, usually numbered from one through thirty-two, in a uniform set. When a "complete" cycle of Beethoven sonatas is performed, these are the thirty-two works heard. Even in scholarly books on Beethoven, there is often an indication that this is the total number of his fortepiano sonatas - for example, William Kinderman refers to Beethoven's last sonata, Opus 111, as his "thirty-second sonata."1 However, Beethoven actually composed, and published, thirty-five fortepiano sonatas during the course of his life, including three (WoO 47) written in 1783 at the age of twelve.2 These three "Kurfürsten" sonatas have repeatedly been marginalized by performers and authors alike - curiously dismissed as juvenilia not worthy of consideration, or even ignored altogether. Very few writers have given them serious attention.

Reasons for excluding them from the canon of "the thirty-two" sonatas are rarely expressed, but seem to relate to their lack of an opus number, and to their length, supposed quality, and early date. The fact that these three sonatas are the only ones without an opus number may have contributed towards their marginalization, but this clearly forms no rational argument: it never counted against Mozart's sonatas, many of which have no opus number either. Equally spurious is any notion that the three sonatas are too short to count. Each is longer than Beethoven's two-movement Sonata in G Major, Opus 49, No. 2, and the third of them is longer than several other Beethoven sonatas including the "Moonlight." Similarly, to suppress the three sonatas on grounds of alleged quality is, at the very least, highly dubious. Even if it could be demonstrated that, after allowing for the fact that they belong to the 1780s rather than the 1800s, each is substantially weaker than any of the other thirty-two (and this has not been done), this would not justify eliminating them; otherwise it would be legitimate to continue chipping away at all the other relatively weak sonatas until we were left with (perhaps) just the Hammerklavier and Opus 111 in C Minor. As for the twelve-year gap between WoO 47 and Beethoven's next sonatas, this is irrelevant in any overall picture of his sonata output. Thus the reasons for marginalizing the three sonatas are wholly invalid, being based on a combination of tradition and cultural prejudice against children's compositions.

A similar picture of neglect for Beethoven's childhood compositions emerges with his concertos. According to Michael Broyles, his First and Second Fortepiano Concertos were "the only concertos Beethoven wrote before 1800."3 And Carl Dahlhaus asserts, concerning No. 2: "Chronologically it is his first concerto."4 Both authors have overlooked or silently dismissed his early Fortepiano Concerto in E-flat Major, WoO 4, of 1784. (Also disregarded, incidentally, are a lost oboe concerto of ca. 1793 and a fragmentary violin concerto of ca. 1791 which Beethoven may well have completed.) Again, the lack of an opus number for WoO 4, plus the fact that its orchestra parts are lost (though they are cued into the fortepiano part in outline), are no grounds for denying the very existence of the work.

Overlooking the existence of Beethoven's early works is one of the most potent means of discriminating against them, and it has been applied, by accident or design, to works other than just his sonatas and concertos. Joseph Kerman writes, "Ten compositions by Beethoven are known from the years 1782-85, when efforts were being made to promote him as a prodigy."5 However, a full list of Beethoven's works that were evidently composed before his sixteenth birthday at the end of 1786 (a convenient if somewhat arbitrary dividingline) shows fourteen works probably dating from the period 1782-85 (see Table 1), provided that sonatas and quartets composed in sets of three are counted individually. …

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