- The Beethoven Sketchbook: History, Reconstruction, Inventory by Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson and Robert Winter, edited by Douglas Johnson
Oxford, 611 pp, £60.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 315313 0
From the general reader’s point of view, this tome – a scrupulous, detailed inventory of Beethoven’s pocket and desk sketchbooks, locating every extant leaf – is about as reviewable as the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue, which it resembles in bulk and necessary emphasis on watermarks, paper-types and other arcana. For the specialist musicologist, and the non-specialist, even the general musician, it must count as a signal achievement of scholarship, to be applauded, reverenced and used. Now, for the first time since the sketchbooks, lovingly protected by Beethoven, passed into the hands of early collectors (Dominic Artaria, Ludwig Landsberg, Friedrich Grasnick, Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Anton Schindler), before being scattered to the European winds, serious students are in possession of the bibliographical information they need. Our authors supply the fullest description of each book, going deep into matters of binding, pagination and structural integrity; itemising contents; carefully attempting datings; and tracing relevant history. The chapters, taking a sketchbook at a time, also include an often beguiling structural chart: thus, in the case of the book known as ‘Artaria 197’, we can learn at a glance about its gatherings, quadrants, paper-types, rastrologies (numbers of staves per page) and stich-holes. From diagrams in the chapters on reconstruction techniques, we can learn how sheets were folded, and even how to make sketchbooks of our own: shades here of Blue Peter. One such chapter introduces pleasant distinctions between ‘sketchbooks with a regular structure and professional stiching’, ‘sketchbooks with a regular structure and non-professional stiching’, and ‘sketchbooks with both irregular structure and non-professional stiching’. It is all a bibliographer’s paradise.
The book’s main parts deal at length first with the large-format oblong ‘desk sketchbooks’ – 33 of them – which Beethoven used at home and which date from 1798 to 1826; then with the upright or oblong smaller-format ‘pocket notebooks’ which he famously carried with him on sorties into the Vienna Woods – 37 of these survive, dating (with one exception) from after 1814, when Beethoven’s sketching habits became even more ingrained. Another part treats, in less detail, some ‘problematical cases’ of sketchbooks that are bound today but may not have been when they were used. The authors, it should be pointed out, do not undertake the impossible task of cataloguing all Beethoven’s sketches – just all his sketchbooks: but this part does consider the two hundred-odd surviving loose sketch-leaves from before the composer resorted to books at all in 1798. The approximately eight hundred loose sketchleaves, or ‘score-sketches’ (more elaborate workings-out, on four-stave systems, than the familiar single melodic line versions), which date from 1824-6 when Beethoven was wholly preoccupied with the late quartets (’the combined sketches,’ we are told, ‘for the C sharp minor quartet [Op. 131] seem to outnumber those for any other single work by Beethoven, including the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis’), are also surveyed, work by work. Every nugget of information relevant to sketching and sketchbooks is clutched by the authors and carefully collated – the significance of never an inkblot (least of all an inkblot) is missed; and the rather beautifully made volume (illustrated with a few pertinent facsimiles) is altogether a model production.
That is not surprising: no one in the world knows more or – with the probable exception of Sieghard Brandenburg of the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, who furnished all the information for six chapters, and constantly pops up – as much as Messrs Johnson, Tyson and Winter. They would appear to be beyond criticism – and certainly by me. They have succeeded in relieving the dry tone of their book with an urbane eloquence – the expositions of complex textual history, like the individual sentences, are faultlessly lucid (credit for wording presumably goes to the ‘editor’ of the volume, Douglas Johnson) – and even, when the occasion arises (as in the introductory, background chapters), with a certain penumbral wit: ‘One might discern ... two phases in the reception of the sketches: an initial mixture of awe and intimidation in the face of their apparent illegibility and, after Nottebohm, experimentation with their possible meanings. Inevitably, this historical sequence is also a personal one, repeated in the experience of everyone who attempts to deal seriously with the sketches. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.’ They do not shrink from admitting that their book will be found useful ‘primarily as a reference tool’. But though it is not indeed a cover-to-cover read, its significance is more than narrowly archival.
It is a symbolic monument in a field – sketch-studies – which Joseph Kerman (closely connected with the authors and, like them, a major contributor to the important OUP series, Beethoven Studies, edited by Tyson) believes to be the most fruitful one for current musicology. His spirited, irresistible monograph, simply entitled (in the UK) Musicology (Fontana, 1985), loudly insists on the need to keep musical criticism in musical scholarship, and deplores the fact that ‘musicologists as a corps spend so much more time in establishing texts than in thinking about the texts so established.’ He sees in ‘an amalgam of analysis and historical studies’ the ‘main practical catalyst towards a kind of musicology oriented towards criticism’, and is convinced that ‘sketch scholarship’ as it is presently pursued, not just in relation to Beethoven but also to 19th and 20th-century composers (Stravinsky, for instance, whose second Sacre sketchbook turned up in September 1982), will ‘almost inevitably’ merge into criticism.
He gives examples of where it has significantly done so: in essays by Christopher Reynolds on Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and by William Kinderman on the Diabelli Variations – both studies relying on, yet transcending, excavatory scholarship to reach adventurous, essentially evaluative conclusions. Kerman has made his own creative explorations of the Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony) sketches, and he cites Robert Winter’s absorbing sketch analysis (in Beethoven Studies 2) of the C sharp minor string quartet, where five structural plans, or ‘tonal overviews’, are posited. We must not expect to find such speculative stuff in the volume under review, whose primary importance will always be to have gone before, but all the details of the ‘Kullak’ sketchbook and related score-sketches which enabled Winter to follow the quartet’s ‘key developmental stages’ (captured in ‘Kullak’, as he put it, like ‘still photographs of bud to blossom’) are succinctly recorded here, while one can pick up plenty of proto-insights from the learned commentaries: for instance, that ‘Kullak’ was the last sketchbook that Beethoven completed. The availability of The Beethoven Sketchbooks means that methods of sketch analysis pioneered in the 19th century by Brahms’s friend Gustav Nottebohm (whose work on the Eroica Symphony sketches was tremendously influential) and practised by later figures such as Paul Mies should become ever more sophisticated and ambitious. More than a catalogue bien raisonné, the new volume is like a wallet of sharpened musicological tools. The authors put it more modestly: ‘Our work assumes the pleasures of the chase, but it will be enough here if we have improved the map of the terrain.’
The authors would have made admirable forensic scientists in the police department, or detectives in the Sherlockian manner. Their work is a triumph of inductive and deductive reasoning. They capably postulate the existence of sketchbooks which haven’t turned up, and confidently define a proper order for the leaves, extant or missing, of the very many mutilated books, such as that for the Pastoral Symphony, of which we are informed that now ‘only five leaves remain unaccounted for, including the one that Ludwig Landsberg gave away in 1852 to the wife of the French ambassador in Rome.’ Tiny flashes of history like that are the book’s delight, and as the disappearance and reappearance down the years of the precious volume is traced, their various owners come flickeringly into view with the peculiar fascination of those illustrious patients in Freud’s casebook: ‘A note in a handwritten catalogue of the Artaria collection that Nottebohm compiled ... indicates that the buyer of Notirungsbuch A [‘Kullak’] ... was a Russian nobleman named Balsch, who lived in Odessa. Nothing further is known of the sketchbook until 1880, when it was given to the Berlin Royal Library by the composer Franz Kullak (1844-1913).’ The history of the Beethoven sketchbooks offers material for any number of Jamesian tales of ‘the papers’.
The present volume is the product of immense labour, comparable to that of Kathleen Coburn in deciphering and editing Coleridge’s notebooks, or of Peter Blayney in scientifically reinstating the Quarto text of Lear. It is tempting to find in it a humble mirror of Beethoven’s own. Just as masterpieces were ultimately drawn from his proliferating, errant, inchoate sketches and the mess of his personal life (the unsavoury episode of Beethoven and his nephew, during which very little music was composed, seems like the pure externalisation of sketch-chaos, when persons and emotions were treated with the same ruthless abandon as ideas in a notebook), so those sketches themselves have now been salvaged from the mess of history and bequeathed to scholarship. With the book of the sketchbooks, we can recover the sketchbooks, and the latter, like all great artists’ preliminary drafts – Yeats’s, Eliot’s, Mahler’s (the sketch score of whose Ninth Symphony, missing its last movement, suffered a typically Beethovenian fate, with Mahler’s widow apparently giving away leaves as a dinner-party souvenir) – provide a key to the utterance and satisfaction of the myth. ‘There is nothing mysterious about sketches,’ the authors begin their book: yet the Beethoven myth is furthered by the survival of sketchbooks, which sacralise even as they demystify his ‘thematic process’. It isn’t only watermarks which glow through the time-torn MSS.