Beethoven Sketch Books by By J. S. Shedlock, B.A. On Musical Time (1892 – 1895)

VII) – MUSICAL TIME December 1, 1892


 By J. S. Shedlock, B.A.

 {Continued from p, 653.)


The origin of some of the greatest musical works is unknown; one may indeed say: “ Happy the work which has no history.” Of such are the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of Bach, and many compositions of Haydn and Mozart. Of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies it is impossible to name a birthday—to say that on such and such a day the foundation stone of any one of them was laid. Sometimes, as in the case of the theme of the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, or of the Scherxo of the Choral Symphony, we know that the composer was making use of ideas which he hat! jotted down years before he commenced seriously to work at either of these Symphonies; but, on the other hand, we seem to trace the birth and immediate development of the theme of the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Now a certain mystery hangs around that popular work—the “Pastoral” Symphony. It seems pretty certain that, according to his wont, Beethoven commenced working at it when the Fifth was aleady far advanced. As a rule, Beethoven was on with a new work before he was off with the old one; Schindler tells us that the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies were written in the years 1806, 1807, and 1808 repectively.

The “Pastoral ” was produced on December 22,1808. Now at the end of the month of July, 1807, Beethoven went to Heiligenstadt, that retired spot on the heights, far away from the noise and worry of the city life in Vienna; and there devoted himself to the C minor Symphony and the Mass in C. At that time Beethoven heard some itinerant musicians, among them, according to

Czerny, a violoncellist, who gave a somewhat distorted arpeggio version of the chord of C major, which the composer introduced into his Mass; surely it was somewewehre about the same time that he came across the rhythmically-unsteady bassoon player of the “Pastoral,” for in a sketch book there are sketches of the “passus” and “resurrexit” of the Mass in C, followed immediately by a “ Sinfonia pastorella” sketch, the beginning, in fact; of the opening theme of the first movement; and the sketches of both works afterwards appear mixed up together.

The Mass in C was completed in 1807, as it was produced on the 13th of September of that year. Nottebohm supposes that the sketches of the Symphony were made about the middle of 1808. There are, in fact, sketches on loose sheets at the Berlin Library, and sketches, in a book devoted entirely to the Pastoral Symphony, at the British Museum. Concerning the former a few remarks will now be made. The Museum book, however, is of quite exceptional interest, for not only does it show the composer’s mode of working, or rather thought-writing, but it contains some remarkable hints as to the connection of the various movements. But though as a study of Beethoven’s method these sketches are of greater importance than those at Berlin, the latter have a peculiar fascination of their own. Hopeless, indeed, does it seem to attempt to describe them—a few bars of a theme, scratchings out, theme re-written, memoranda, red-pencil marks, all this is apt to convey the idea that Beethovenvs works show patient labour rather than sudden inspiration. A glance, however, at these sketches at once removes any such notion. The excited character of the writing, the, at times, almost illegible words written wildly amidst the music, the divine disorder which reigns throughout—reverything shows that Beethoven had before him at the time a sound-picture of which he rapidly sketched the outlines. Compare any of Beethoven’s sketches with the printed version, and it will be seen that the latter is the outcome of the former. He did not change and change until the best, as if by chance, presented itself; but restored a faded picture. Such vivid sketches as those of the “ Pastoral ” Symphony are the best answer that can be given to any who feel inclined to consider Beethoven’s mode of working detrimental to his music; though for the most part incomprehensible, they bear the stamp of genius. There are sketches of all the movements, those of the opening Allegro being least in number. Particularly interesting are the various “storm” indications—the rumbling of the bassi, the tremoli, the vivid descending passage of the violins, flee.

On one page stands written :—

“Jede Mahlerei, nachdem sie in der Instrumental-musik zu weit getrieben, verkehrt.”

Which is, being freely interpreted—

“It is a mistake to carry painting in instrumental music too far”.

The history of programme music since Beethoven’s day shows how sound a principle is therein enunciated. And it is particularly interesting to note the exact page on which Beethoven has written this. In various places there are superscriptions, but this sentence occurs after a few bars of the slow, and also of the following movement—those portions of the Symphony next to the “storm,” in which he sought to give more definite expression to his thoughts. Beethoven apparently felt that he was travelling along a dangerous road, and wrote down those words as a warning to himself. May they also serve as such to others!

(To be continued.)

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