1870 marked the 100th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. After denying the invitation from the “Beethoven Committee of Vienna” to appear onstage together with Liszt, Joachim and Clara Schumann to celebrate the event, Richard Wagner decided to write an essay instead. While this essay is notable as a broader investigation of Wagner’s aesthetic philosophy and ideals, it also remains an insightful exploration of both the artistic significance and enduring popularity of Beethoven’s music. For Wagner Beethoven’s music isn’t merely beautiful, a concept that is for him constrained by convention and subject to changing tastes and fashions, but sublime. Beethoven reveals a sort of Platonic ideal of melody, thereby liberating it from its historical moment, and connecting his listeners with a timeless, universal human truth. For Wagner it is Beethoven’s radical defiance against tradition and his intense emotional expressions that make his music a vehicle for revelation.
Though these strains are apparent across Beethoven’s entire oeuvre, it is in his piano sonatas that Beethoven’s boldest thoughts and gestures shine most brightly. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Beethoven was widely known as a brilliant pianist in his own right, giving him the natural freedom to stretch the boundaries of the instrument. Perhaps, though, it is also due to the nature of the piano itself: a solo instrument that lends itself to the realm of the personal and inward, even the diaristic, and one that, by allowing tones only to be struck and not sustained or driven forward, abstracts music into its most intellectually pure form, making it a prime medium for musical exploration and innovation.
To explore Beethoven’s piano sonatas is to explore Beethoven’s musical innovations. In these 32 pieces, we see the concentrated version of the familiar trajectory guiding us from the Classical era into the Romantic: the experimental mimicry of his early years, the ego-driven defiance of his middle years where, at the height of his compositional powers, he most fully challenges convention, and finally his late years where, fully deaf, he introspectively explores the mysteries of life and death.
In the collection of piano sonatas, we also see the concentrated version of the formal shifts that we see in his symphonic and chamber works. From the most trivial musical notions he extracts the most expansive palettes through time manipulation, rhythmic ambiguities, unexpected accents, extreme dynamic contrasts and seemingly infinite variations on single simplistic themes. As the opus numbers increase, we see him shorten expositions and lengthen developments and codas, reintroduce Baroque counterpoint and fugue into contemporary composition, and shift the structural weight of the sonata from the first to the final movement.
To advance such radical changes, it was almost necessary that Beethoven remain insistent on his music being played as he had intended, rather than falling prey to interpretive fashion and, at least at its time, the conventions it aimed to break. As such, Beethoven left specific and meticulous guidance in his manuscripts that he expected to be followed just as carefully.
During his three years assembling the new complete Bärenreiter Urtext collection of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, editor Jonathan Del Mar spent a great deal of time grappling with primary texts, many written by Beethoven himself. Here Del Mar discusses the importance of dealing with these primary sources, especially when publishing a work of such a meticulous composer, as well as the difficulty in deciphering something so personal as handwriting:
“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?
I have lived with Beethoven’s handwriting for my whole life. My father bought the colossal facsimile of the Ninth Symphony when I was a boy and we looked at it together. Actually I have always had a fascination for handwritings, recognising and deciphering them. From decades of looking at most of the extant Beethoven autographs the composer’s handwriting has become very familiar to me. And there are idiosyncrasies! An example: When Beethoven smudges something, that means he is deleting it! This is often far from obvious and I had to learn it.
Beethoven was actually incredibly accurate, methodical, and scrupulous down to the last accidental and staccato mark. His manuscripts are a miracle both of creative inspiration and of systematic organization; you can see in them both the white-hot heat of his temperament and the cool, calculated finickiness of one determined that there should not be a single mistake in the printed score. He sent correction lists to publishers on account of quite small details. Indeed: when the finished product dropped on to his mat, when 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.
Why do I need to go to libraries and look at the physical sources? Why can’t I work from scans, photocopies, or microfilms? Despite all the research already having been done, there may still be crucial things to be discovered from the composer’s original manuscript. If you base your edition on bad photocopies in which a grain in the paper or a stitchhole looks exactly like a staccato mark or even a note, you are in trouble. In the Sonata op. 28 a hole in the paper has for a long time been printed as a staccato in many editions!”
The Bärenreiter Complete Beethoven Sonatas for Pianoforte, a culmination of Del Mar’s decades of work on Beethoven, is now available at introductory pricing and, along with the associated critical commentary, is part of our preparation for the yearlong celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020. New individual editions of each sonata are also available.