Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

The Cramer Anecdote about Beethoven: A Reassessment

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

The Cramer Anecdote about Beethoven: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

I. Problems with the Anecdote

In a recent article, Owen Jander has discussed in detail a popular anecdote about the composer Johann Baptist Cramer and his association with Beethoven.' As Jander says, the anecdote has been cited in many a musicological study, and has often been used to support the claim that Beethoven greatly admired Mozart's Pianoforte Concerto in C Minor, K. 491. Jander seems to accept the basic reliability of the anecdote, although he questions two small details. Other writers, however, have recently begun to express doubts about more fundamental aspects of the story - especially concerning the identity of the Mozart concerto mentioned by Cramer.2 The time is ripe, therefore, for a thorough reassessment of the anecdote, for the more it is investigated, the stronger the doubts become. The account in its familiar English-language version reads as follows:

Cramer's widow communicates a pleasant anecdote. At an Augarten Concert the two pianists were walking together and hearing a performance of Mozart's pianoforte Concerto in C Minor (K. 491); Beethoven suddenly stood still and, directing his companion's attention to the exceedingly simple, but equally beautiful motive which is first introduced towards the end of the piece, exclaimed: "Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!"

As the theme was repeated and wrought up to the climax, Beethoven, swaying his body to and fro, marked the time and in every possible manner manifested a delight rising to enthusiasm.3

Cramer lived in London for most of his life, and his visit to Vienna, where he met Beethoven, evidently lasted from September 1799 to early the following year,4 after which he returned home and, as far as is known, did not visit Vienna again until after Beethoven's death. Since the Augarten concerts took place only during the warmer months - often in the open air - the only time he could have heard them with Beethoven was shortly after his arrival in 1799, and so it is generally agreed that the incident must have taken place then.

The first detail in the narrative questioned by Jander is the order of events. He suggests that Beethoven made his comment to Cramer in response to Mozart's treatment of the theme during its repetition, rather than to its initial appearance. This suggestion is very plausible, since it means that Beethoven did not interrupt listening to the music by speaking, and that he was more struck by the way the material was developed than by the initial motive. In fact the chronology within the anecdote is not absolutely clear: the final sentence seems as if it could have been contributed as an additional detail after the story had been related in more summary form - which is how Jander evidently interprets it. The second detail that he questions is the assumption by Tovey and others that Cramer was referring to the end of the whole concerto. As Jander rightly points out, the anecdote does not actually specify the finale, and the passage in the finale that is supposedly described "simply does not fit what we read in the Cramer anecdote."5

More fundamental objections to the anecdote hinge on three features. Firstly, the means by which it was transmitted from Cramer to us was a hazardous one, with the result that errors are likely to have crept in. secondly, Mozart's C Minor Concerto was not published until about August 1800(6) after Cramer had departed from Vienna back to his home in London. And thirdly, the musical description fits neither the finale nor any other movement of the concerto. Let us examine each of these three problems in turn.

II. Transmission

The version of the anecdote quoted above appears in English language editions ofThayer's monumental biography of Beethoven. But it must be remembered that this biography was originally published in German, and that the English version of this part of the biography is a 1921 translation by Henry Krehbiel ofthat German edition. …

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