Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lost Beethoven manuscript found in Pennsylvania seminary

By Aussiegirl

Now here's big news, music lovers -- a long-lost manuscript of one of Beethoven's final compositions, dating from the last few months of his life, has been found in the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. by a librarian who was cleaning out a dusty closet.

It is a transcription for piano four-hands of his monumental "Grosse Fuge", which was originally intended as the final movement of one of his greatest musical statements, the late string quartets.

The Grosse Fuge has always been considered almost mystical in its dimensions and breathtaking scope, but was judged to be too complex and long to be the finale to a quartet. Beethoven was prevailed upon by critics and friends to publish it as a separate piece, and a shorter and lighter finale was composed for the finale of Quartet op. 130.

It is thrilling to see how the great titan himself wrestled with the composition, the emotion spilling over onto the page with numerous vigorous erasures, cross-outs -- some so deep the page is punctured. It shows a genius at work, grappling with the mighty forces of his own talents and his own magnificent conceptions of the heavens, the earth, God and all the majesty which this great genius was privileged and burdened with apprehending. To see him attempt to recreate on paper what was no doubt boiling in his soul is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

It is not for nothing that great geniuses are often felled by their own temperaments and emotions. It takes a character of great steel and determination to harness those titanic forces with which nature endows them. Some succumb, while others triumph as Beethoven did, overcoming superhuman odds -- his early deafness, his painful illnesses, his increasing isolation from the society of people he so dearly loved, his own volcanic emotions that often overwhelmed and hurled him into pits of despair, only to raise him again on wings of musical inspiration.

Ah -- Beethoven never fails to inspire me -- both his music and his genius and his personal story. Beethoven -- a man for all seasons.

New York Times

It was a working manuscript score for a piano version of Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge," a monument of classical music. And it was in the composer's own hand, according to Sotheby's auction house. The 80-page manuscript in mainly brown ink - a furious scattering of notes across the page, with many changes and cross-outs, some so deep that the paper is punctured - dates from the final months of Beethoven's life.

The score had effectively disappeared from view for 115 years, apparently never examined by scholars. It goes on display today, just for the afternoon, at the school, the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.

"It was just sitting on that shelf," Ms. Carbo said. "I was just in a state of shock."

Like Ms. Carbo, musicologists sounded stunned when read a description of the manuscript by Sotheby's, which will auction it on Dec. 1 in London. "Wow! Oh my God!" said Lewis Lockwood, a musicology professor at Harvard University and a Beethoven biographer. "This is big. This is very big."

Indeed it is.

Any manuscript showing a composer's self-editing gives invaluable insight into his working methods, and this is a particularly rich example. Such second thoughts are particularly revealing in the case of Beethoven, who, never satisfied, honed his ideas brutally - unlike, say, Mozart, who was typically able to spill out a large score in nearly finished form.

What's more, this manuscript is among Beethoven's last, from the period when he was stone deaf. It not only depicts his thought processes at their most introspective and his working methods at their most intense, but also gives a sense of his concern for his legacy. The "Grosse Fuge," originally part of a string quartet, had been badly treated by a baffled public, and he was evidently eager to see it live on in a form in which music lovers could play it on their pianos at home.

A look at the manuscript, made available by the auction house, shows a composer working with abandon and fixated on getting it exactly right. Groups of measures are vigorously canceled out with crosshatches. There are smudges where Beethoven appears to have wiped away ink while it was still wet. Sections have "aus," or "out," scribbled over them.

In some parts, Beethoven pays little heed to spacing out the notes in a measure, extending the five-line staves with wobbly lines in his own hand. High notes soar above the staff. The handwriting grows agitated to match the music. His clefs are ill formed. In one place, he pastes an entire half-page over a botched section with red sealing wax.

In another spot, Beethoven puts in numbers to signify the fingering. "It's so touching," said Stephen Roe, a musicologist who is head of Sotheby's manuscript department. "It means he played it."

The "Grosse Fuge" lies at the heart of an enduring Beethoven controversy.

It was composed, and published, as the finale of his Op. 130 String Quartet, a member of the colossal series of late quartets. But it was astonishingly complex. After the premiere on March 21, 1826, a reviewer called the music "incomprehensible, like Chinese" and suggested that Beethoven's deafness was at fault. Beethoven wrote another finale, lighter and more pastoral, and agreed to have the "Grosse Fuge" published separately.

Debate has raged over the Op. 130 quartet's proper finale. One camp says that since Beethoven himself made the decision, the substitute finale should be played. The other says that he was effectively pressured into the change by his friends and publisher, and that therefore the "Grosse Fuge" should remain.

Maynard Solomon, another Beethoven biographer, cautioned against overestimating the manuscript's value, pointing out that it is a piano transcription and thus a "secondary work." But, Mr. Solomon said, it fills a gap in the history of the "Grosse Fuge," which he called "one of the most important composition histories in Beethoven's life."

The publisher commissioned a four-hand piano version from another composer, but the job of teasing out the string lines and assigning them to the keyboard was so poorly done that Beethoven insisted on making his own version, which he delivered in August 1826. He was dead less than eight months later.

Describing the period of Beethoven's life, Mr. Lockwood, the Harvard musicologist, said: "He's sick. He is old in his way. He's tired. He's really near the end of his career. But he decides it's worth it to get this piece out in four hands in his own version. It's a labor of extreme love at the end of his life."

Beethoven could not comprehend why the work was not better received. When he was told the audience at the premiere called for encores of the middle movements, he was reported to have said: "And why didn't they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!"


At 4:58 PM, Anonymous Pindar said...

Aussiegirl, you've done us all a great service by posting this fascinating article and reminding us that long after Ms. Miers and this whole thunderous tempest are forgotten, Beethoven's music, the outpouring of that titanic genius, will be alive and nourishing mankind with not only its supernal beauty but also its deep feelings of the divine that lies both beyond and beneath nature. (Here let me quote from a letter written by Beethoven to Archduke Rudolph in 1823: "There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind".) As a footnote to my comment: I went to "The Beethoven Compendium" and learned that the publisher involved was M. Artaria, and the composer, whose arrangement Beethoven was unsatisfied with, was Anton Halm (1789-1872).

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Ah, Pindar -- it's such a pleasure to hear such fine sentiments from another Beethoven lover. He is indeed the composer closest to the divine. And you have selected one of my very favorite Beethoven quotes. It can be said with all confidence, that it was vouchsafed to Beethoven to bridge the chasm between man and God and to shower those divine sparks unto mankind through his music. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Sent this on to some of my more advanced piano students. Great post!

At 10:17 PM, Blogger BonnieBlueFlag said...

My e-mail is down again, so I'm taking this avenue to contact you. I didn't want you to think I was not responding to you.

I'll try again in a little while.

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