Deciphering Beethoven’s Handwriting

Guest post by Bärenreiter editor Jonathan Del Mar on working with Beethoven’s autographs

Page from the Bärenreiter facsimile edition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

“Beethoven had such appallingly messy handwriting, didn’t he – I don’t know how anyone can read it!” How many times have I heard that accusation directed against one of the greatest composers who ever lived? True, many great works have been created despite truly terrible handwriting; Tippett, for example, when asked: “Michael, should this be an F or a G here?”, would characteristically respond, “Oh, I don’t know, love, do whichever you think best.” I would say the all-time worst handwriting was Janáček’s; but perhaps Janáček scholars would defend their icon just as I do Beethoven.

Because, you see, Beethoven was actually incredibly accurate, methodical, and scrupulous. All he demands, for a correct reading of his manuscripts, is time, patience, and a magnifying glass. Given those three, you find that everything is absolutely precise, every detail is stipulated down to the last accidental and staccato mark. Beethoven was obsessional about every tiny marking, sending correction lists to publishers on account of quite small details. He would say: what does it matter if, when you hold the manuscript away from you, it looks messy? All that is important is that everything is there, correct and legible. And it is. Beethoven’s manuscripts are a miracle both of creative inspiration and of systematic organization; you can see in them both the white-hot heat of Beethoven’s temperament and the cool, calculated persnicketiness of one determined that there should not be a single mistake in the printed score. Because indeed: when the finished product dropped on to his mat, he opened it, and immediately saw a mistake, he would fly into a rage, and straightaway write to the publisher insisting that the edition be withdrawn, or at least that every copy be corrected by them in Indian ink before it was sold.

I first got into Beethoven through my father, the conductor Norman Del Mar. Why Beethoven, I am often asked? Simple answer: for conductors, everything begins with Beethoven. The Beethoven Symphonies are the ABC of the orchestral literature. At my father’s first conducting class of the year, all the new students would sit round in a circle, and he would ask the first: sing me the beginning of Beethoven 1. Now you, the second movement. And so on round the circle, until the Beethoven symphonies were exhausted, they would proceed to Brahms, and the sheep (those prospective conductors who knew their repertoire) were well and truly sorted from the goats. So when he and I were looking at mistakes in orchestral scores, we would always start with Beethoven. And since in 1984 there was still no reliable edition of the Beethoven Symphonies, we might as well start correcting those! And he had one of the rare 1924 facsimiles of the Ninth, which we used to pore over together.

So if you can get the original manuscript in front of you, and you have a week free, and a good magnifying glass, there is actually no problem. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to get to see those original manuscripts! And copies are treacherous: they will show you most of it, give you a good idea of roughly what the composer wrote, but if you need every single detail, they are never 100% reliable. Even the best blown-up scan cannot show the necessarily three dimensions of a hole in the paper; one reputable edition of the ‘Pastoral’ sonata (op.28) shows one such as a staccato mark. Beautiful colour copies are equally deceptive; with the cello variations WoO 46 I thought I was ready to go to print, but just did a final check with the original manuscript of every note, dot and slur, and found that what seemed to be a simple dotted rhythm (dotted eighth plus a sixteenth) was in fact double-dotted; both the second dot and the second flag (beam) were obscured by a rather dark stave-line. And all other editions, even “urtexts”, are to this day wrong in that bar.

More bizarre was the case of the cello sonata op.102 no.2. There I started working with copies made from microfilm, and had my text ready. Checking everything with the original in Berlin, I was brought up short: this is not an F, but an E! How could I have got that wrong? I had my copies with me; I looked back and forth, from E to F and back again, both as clear as day, the F in the copy on the centre of the line, the E in the manuscript right in the centre of the space. Spooky.

The only lesson to be learnt from this is that for an edition to be reliable, it absolutely has to be done from the original manuscript. Fortunately most librarians realise this, and grant serious scholars access.

Shop Beethoven Urtext Editions from Bärenreiter on Sheet Music Plus

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