Haydn, Mozart, & Beethoven: Studies in the Music of the Classical Period

By Sieghard Brandenburg | Go to book overview

16
Deconstructing Beethoven's Sketchbooks

DOUGLAS JOHNSON

Twenty years ago, in an article with a similar title, Alan Tyson and I described a method for reconstructing Beethoven's sketchbooks. Our stimulus was the warning first sounded by Nottebohm that one could not reconstruct the compositional process from sources that were no longer in their original condition. The fact that we said nothing at all about why the compositional process should be reconstructed was mute testimony to our faith in Beethoven and modern musicology: the former could not fail to be interesting and the latter could not fail to be interested. When, a few years later, I struck out on my own, claiming that even reconstructed sketches were not helping us much with the works themselves, Tyson observed wryly that I was sawing off the branch on which I had been sitting. Now, in this volume dedicated to him, I should like to return to the point where I was last seen sawing, in the hope of achieving a softer landing.

The paradox, as I saw it in the 1970s, was that only a mistrust of our ability to master the score could justify the trust we put in the advice of sketches. Why I myself placed so much confidence in the sufficiency of the score I can only ascribe to a fundamentalist's faith in the authority of sacred texts. Nearly everyone else in sketch studies insisted that interpretation is a messy business conducted by mortals--that cleanliness and godliness, though proximate to each other, were equally distant from the practising analyst. The evident truth of this is not very satisfying. As the cartoon on my office door has it: I used to lack confidence in myself, then I realized that I'm no different from everyone else; now I lack confidence in everyone.

When I was reaching these gloomy conclusions I was completely ignorant of the happier state of affairs in literary criticism, where readers were pretty much having their way with texts. I can't claim to be much less ignorant than I was then, but word of Barthes and Derrida, by now anthologized and served up in predigested nuggets in the scholarly tabloids, has reached even me:

-225-

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