Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

A Performing Edition of Beethoven's Sixth Fortepiano Concerto?

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

A Performing Edition of Beethoven's Sixth Fortepiano Concerto?

Article excerpt



In late 1814 and early 1815 Beethoven spent a good deal of time on a project that never reached completion: a fortepiano concerto in D Major. He made about seventy pages of sketches for the first movement. He even started writing out a full score.1 Although the scoring becomes patchy as the work proceeds and there are signs of indecision or dissatisfaction on the composer's part, the score runs almost uninterrupted from the beginning of the movement to the middle of the solo exposition. For whatever reason, Beethoven abandoned the work and this torso of a movement (nowadays identified as Hess 15) remains one of the most substantial of Beethoven's unrealized conceptions.

Making sense of the abandoned full score, and of the sketches that go with it, is a challenging task. One particular reason for this is that the score has at some time been bound with its pages in the wrong order, resulting in erroneous interpretations of the music.2 But there are other more basic problems as well problems that apply to all autograph materials by Beethoven. The abandoned full score contains gaps, incompatible readings, new versions written over old ones, and simple mistakes. And, at an even more basic level, you face the difficulties posed by Beethoven's musical handwriting, whereby (for instance) what looks like a quarter-note E might be a badly placed D or F, or an E-flat with the accidental missing, or possibly an eighth-note rest. If you simply literally copy out what you see in a Beethoven manuscript, you are likely to end up with gibberish. Instead, you have to make sense of what you see; you have to interpret, aiming within each passage for a reading that is musically plausible and consistent with what comes before and after it.

Normally, the final version provides a context for making sense of the sketches and other autograph materials. There is, however, a danger in this approach: it can lead you to see everything that Beethoven wrote in terms of its relevance to the final version - that is, in terms of progress towards a known goal. And this can make it hard to recapture the way the music appeared to Beethoven during the compositional process, when he had as yet no clear conception of precisely where he was going. But that is a relatively small price to pay for the ability to make sense of the autograph materials.

In the case of Hess 15, however, it is not possible to follow such a procedure, because there is no final version. There are many places in the full score where Beethoven has (1) written down alternative and incompatible versions of the music without choosing between them, (2) crossed something out without writing in a replacement, and (3) piled corrections on top of one another to the extent that they become impossible to read. Add these to the usual difficulties of Beethoven's handwriting and it becomes more than ever apparent that you can only read what Beethoven has written by following through its musical consequences, by testing it out in terms of compositional viability. In short, I am suggesting that preparing a playable edition of Hess 15 is a good, and perhaps an indispensable, way of coming to grips with the source materials for the work.


Musical Problems in Preparing a Performing Edition

The full score of Hess 15 begins confidently enough (see Fig. 1). Once you have figured out the instrumental layout (with the violins and the violas in the top three staves, and the cellos and basses on one stave at the bottom as seen in Example 1), there is no problem in making sense of the scoring.3 Beethoven himself became confused over the layout, for he started writing the clarinet part where the oboe should have been - that is, the fourth stave down - and accordingly put the oboe part in what should have been the flute stave, marking it 'oboe.' But these are trivial matters, and indeed all that would be required to make this page performable is to add dynamic markings (surely fortepiano, because otherwise the designation 'uno contrabasso' makes no sense), and to decide on some pattern of slurring for the woodwinds (or is every note to be tongued? …

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