Even more immortal
- Memories of Beethoven: From the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards by Gerhard von Breuning, edited by Maynard Solomon, translated by Henry Mins and Maynard Solomon
Cambridge, 154 pp, £15.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 521 41710 4
- Beethoven: Studies in the Creative Process by Lewis Lockwood
Harvard, 283 pp, £31.95, July 1992, ISBN 0 674 06362 7
In a well-known anecdote, recounted years after the event by Gottfried Fischer, the boy Beethoven is looking out of his window in Bonn
with his head in both hands and staring fixedly at one spot. Cäcilie Fischer came over the yard and said to him, ‘How does it look, Ludwig?’ but got no answer. Afterwards she asked him what he meant by it: ‘No answer is an answer too.’ He said: ‘O no, not that: excuse me; I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought. I couldn’t bear to be disturbed.’
Genius and eccentricity often seem to go hand in hand – and rarely with so tight a clasp as in Beethoven’s case; yet eccentricity, considered sympathetically, is simply the outward form of concentration. If Beethoven comes across as persistently irregular in behaviour, it is because he wanted to prolong that ‘lovely, deep thought’ over a creative lifetime. One could define genius as the strategic ability to withstand, deflect and even positively exploit the plethora of distractions and impediments which the world flings at anyone who would concentrate. As an extreme exemplar of genius, Beethoven resorted to the extreme strategy for a composer of going deaf (there is evidence, adduced by Maynard Solomon, of Beethoven’s partial assent to his misfortune). His lovely thought was duly prolonged in a late flowering of the most profound inwardness; but for all that the world admires the canny success of Beethoven’s creative journey – that is to say, his works themselves – it can never have enough of laughing at his follies and mishaps on the way.
One of these books is a chief biographical source for material on Beethoven’s eccentricity and the other is a remarkable pursuit of the precise workings of his genius – a successful invasion, by means of palaeographic analysis, of the mental privacy in which he made his smallest and often most consequential creative decisions. Breuning’s memoir paints an intimate portrait of Beethoven’s domesticity: Lewis Lockwood to a striking extent domesticates Beethoven’s genius, which is now revealed as less an unknowably sublime phenomenon than a matter of hard practicality, of a last-minute deletion on the autograph or a superadded bit of scrawl. Reading about the composer’s personal troubles can be comic, and the tough demands of musicology can make for a tragedy of prose (though Lock-wood writes as well as any ‘sketch-scholar’ can hope to); but the effect of passing from the first of these books to the second was, I found, to be taken out of the gloomy enclave of well-worn anecdote in which Beethoven is pre-eminently a figure of pathos, into a laser-lit realm in which Beethoven’s mind truly is heroic.
The books touch at two points. A note in Lockwood refers to Breuning’s ‘doubtless exaggerated’ estimate of the thirty years’ service that Wenzel Schlemmer gave to Beethoven as his best copyist, able to decipher those famously over-burdened manuscripts better even than Lockwood; and the latter elsewhere alludes to Breuning’s testimony that Beethoven incessantly (and at all hours of the day and night) jotted down ideas for fear of forgetting them. The young Breuning is intrigued by the appearance of a Beethoven sketch-book, which he finds on a piece of furniture in Beethoven’s apartment (‘it was completely full of notes, written in fits and starts, and even additional staves drawn freehand right across the margins, with all kinds of musical thoughts entered on them; it was a remarkable sight’), as he is by all the appurtenances and outward signs of Beethoven’s creativity. But Lockwood actually tells us what those musical thoughts seem to be, which is to achieve the greater intimacy.
Both books are difficult to read in their different ways. Lockwood’s finely wrought but resolutely unmetaphorical prose is necessarily stuffed with dry fact, and the layman will be considerably taxed by the exhaustive stretches of analytic and bibliographic detail. Solomon’s edition of Breuning’s memoir requires a readerly equivalent of turning Rubik’s cube: one has to be forever diving into the author’s often lengthy footnotes and, more important, switching to the editor’s copious annotations at the back to learn if Breuning’s information is correct. Somewhere in this three-dimensional literary space the Beethovenian truth is trapped. For all Breuning’s intimate contact with his subject, as Solomon explains, he not infrequently gives a distorted or false version of the way, according to modern research, things probably were. This is mainly a consequence of his reliance on what have proved to be biographical forgeries by Anton Schindler and J.F. Rochlitz. When Breuning was compiling his volume in the 1870s, ‘Schindler’s authority was at its very peak.’ What Breuning mostly takes from him, and thus perpetuates, are a number of malicious fabrications to do with, for instance, the ill-treatment of Beethoven by his brother Johann, the incorrigible nature of his nephew Karl, or the fatal incompetence of his doctor Andreas Wawruch. One might have supposed Breuning to be in possession of the facts, but he was writing as an elderly doctor in Bonn looking back on his Viennese childhood as the son of one of Beethoven’s closest friends, Stephan von Breuning. It is the remembered wealth of vivid detail that is the surprising feature of the book, not the intermittent succumbing to misty confusion and second-hand opinion.
Breuning had the kind of destiny that modern novelists like to invent: a familiar of the great (Grillparzer, Schubert as well as Beethoven), he bore witness to their genius, saw them through their deaths, and unable to accompany them into the next world, at least (and ghoulishly enough) had responsibility for their skulls (in Beethoven and Schubert’s cases) when their bodies were municipally exhumed and reinterred years after their decease. Teutonic museological mentality becomes a bit blatant as the good doctor reverently produces an essay on the characteristics of their respective crania: ‘it was extremely physiologically interesting to compare the compact thickness of Beethoven’s skull and the fine, almost feminine thinness of Schubert’s, and to relate them, almost directly, to the character of their music’ And it is an extraordinary life of which it can be so simply written:
in the afternoon we all walked to the Schönbrunn. My mother had a visit to make in Meidling (adjoining Schönbrunn). I accompanied her. My father, Beethoven, and my teacher waited for us on a bench on the lawn of the Schönbrunn garden.
Who was that so lightly accommodated between commas? Beethoven?
The young Gerhard’s first encounter with the composer of whom his family had ever been talking lends the first page of his memoir a dramatic power of surprise. Strolling in Vienna on an August afternoon in 1825, the 12-year-old boy and his father notice
a man walking alone, heading straight towards us ... He was powerful looking, of medium height, vigorous in his gait and in his lively movements, his clothing far from elegant or conventional; and there was something about him overall that did not fit into any classification ... He spoke almost without pause, asking how we were ... and, without taking much time to wait for my father to answer ... he joyfully hastened to tell us that soon ... he would be a close neighbour of ours, in the Schwarzspanier Haus ... My father seldom got a chance to put a word in.
The composer is suddenly there before us in all his garrulousness and good cheer. But who imagines Beethoven as garrulous? The poignancy of the situation is, of course, that he keeps on talking to disguise his deafness.
A breach between Beethoven and Stephan von Breuning, his friend from their Bonn days (the dedicatee of the Violin Concerto), had recently been healed, and the Breuning family were to prove good neighbours indeed to the far from domesticated composer. Gerhard became a frequent visitor to the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards (a former Benedictine monastery on the edge of Vienna) in which the swarthy Beethoven had the last of his countless apartments. The time spent by the boy within its walls was not surprisingly among his most formative experiences: decades later he could render the physical layout and feel of the apartment with the precision of one who had just left it (the includes a floor-plan for good measure); and the concentration of his narrative on this enclosed space gives his description of Beethoven’s final illness and death an enhanced immediacy. One of Breuning’s most vivid vignettes of Beethoven during this terminal misery of ‘tappings’ meant to relieve his dropsy (his abdomen always filled up again with fluid ‘even though for days after the operation an indeterminate amount of water oozed out through the incision, which repeatedly became inflamed’) is of the bedridden composer learning that his doctor was coming through the next room, and turning his body violently to the wall to exclaim in exasperation and despair: ‘Oh, that ass!’
Beethoven came to rely heavily on young Gerhard, whom he variously called ‘Hosenknopf’ (‘trouser button’), because he stuck so closely to his father, and Ariel; and not merely for running errands but for a certain amount of bright intercourse, too, if the conversation-book extracts quoted in Solomon’s excellent introduction are a fair indication. Courteous and considerate, fascinated by the composer’s personality and fame, and with a strong sense of the ‘merger’ between Beethoven and his own family, Gerhard set out, so Solomon suggests, to ‘be a “good son” to Beethoven, in contrast to the “ungrateful” nephew Karl’. This cannot have been an easy task. Association with Beethoven ‘demands a real effort’, Gerhard’s father wrote in a letter quoted in the text, ‘to which one can never resign oneself’; but it was doubtless easier for Ariel. We hear no complaints from him, and there were plenty of rewards: the Clementi piano method that the grateful and solicitous Beethoven went to some lengths to obtain; letters and souvenirs; most valuable of all, innumerable intimate glimpses of a genius.
These he passes on to us with a marvellous eye for detail. Describing Beethoven’s unorthodox and slovenly dress (which alienated nephew Karl: ‘I, on the other hand, was very proud to be seen with such a prominent man’), he nicely observes that
the skirts of his coat were rather heavily weighed down. On one side there was his handkerchief, often hanging out, and on the other a rather thick music notebook in quarto format and folded together, plus an octavo conversation book and a thick carpenter’s pencil ... The music note-book was so heavy that the skirt of the coat had stretched on that side; also, because the hand on that side was so frequently pulling out the music and conversation books, the pocket there was stretched outward.
Elsewhere, Breuning tellingly illustrates Beethoven’s suspiciousness, touchiness and violence, his pride and bluff sense of humour. He recounts the Schindler anecdote of how Beethoven, receiving a New Year’s greeting on which his brother Johann had signed himself ‘Landowner’, responded by inscribing the back of the card ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain-owner’. He offers empirical proof of the composer’s deafness, remembering how he had played the piano loudly in Beethoven’s oblivious presence. But that thick carpenter’s pencil (required because Beethoven was so clumsy) and stretched pocket bring the man so close you can practically smell him.
Breuning’s text quotes the whole of Grillparzer’s high-flown speech at Beethoven’s funeral – as also his homelier but valuable remark: ‘for all [Beethoven’s] odd ways which ... often bordered on being offensive, there was something so inexpressibly touching and noble in him that one could not but esteem and feel drawn to him.’ This, oddly, is translated one way in the introduction and another in the text. The translation of the text, by Solomon and Henry Mins, is lively and engaging, and not the less so for capturing the elderly doctor’s punctilious tone. (Breuning’s nicety goes comically far when he notes that ‘Mozart’s immortal Requiem’ was to be sung for the ‘even more immortal Beethoven’.) But it is not absolutely true to claim, as Solomon does, that Breuning’s book, though a standard biographical source, has never previously been ‘translated from the German into any language’. Perhaps not the whole book, but a useful chunk of it has long been available in English in Oscar Sonneck’s Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries from which the present translators actually take their Grillparzer oration text, and from which I derived my opening anecdote.
Although the sense of Beethoven’s disorderly domestic circumstances that Breuning’s memoirs convey owes rather too much to Schindler, and though Breuning admits that the Schwarzspanierhaus apartment was ‘very attractive’, we are certainly left with an image of Beethoven always more or less beleaguered by practicalities, struggling against the obdurate incursions on his composing life of the world of brute things and messy people. Lewis Lockwood’s essays resume the narrative of this struggle on a purely aesthetic plane. The external world against which Beethoven’s ‘lovely, deep thought’ has to fight for survival includes even his own body – his hand and its hard labour of writing. The spiritual idea, the ideal form, are tantalisingly graspable, and Beethoven’s genius generally does reach them in the end; but powerfully obstructive material forces are ranged against him. His creative intentions are mistaken at every point. Publishers repeatedly fail to take note of his detailed protestations over misprints. Copyists have understandable difficulty with his autographs; and, as Lockwood’s opening chapter explains, the autographs themselves had enormous difficulty with Beethoven. They were subjected to endless blotchy cancellations and overwritings which, while visually creating a symbol of aesthetic tussle not unlike a Frank Auerbach drawing and securing the myth of Beethoven as a heroically patient grappler with crude ideas, in strictly musical terms often amount to a radical recasting of the music, a decisive continuation of composition at ‘fair copy’ or autograph stage.
It is, in fact, hard to speak of a Beethoven ‘autograph’, and, if one does, it must always be with the caveat that autographs and sketches should be seen ‘not as independent objects but as partial and detached segments of larger wholes, as symptoms of processes whose goals were not the writing of manuscripts but the making of compositions’. In some cases, such as the projected and abandoned D major Piano Concerto of 1815 (a 60-page rudimentary autograph score survives of the first movement of what would have been Beethoven’s sixth such concerto), sketch material may even represent a more definitive state of the music than the ‘autograph’: compositional problems that have arisen during the ‘copying-out’ process may be dealt with by a return to the sketchbook.
Having usefully defined his terms – this essay, the earliest of the 11, dates back to 1970 when the sketch-studies movement in musicology was beginning to burgeon – Lockwood moves on to his dazzling though demanding analysis of the autograph first movement of the Opus 69 Cello Sonata (1809). Like that of the movement from the abandoned concerto, this Beethoven autograph is one of relatively few (whether of whole works or individual movements) to have survived intact, and Lockwood reproduces the whole of it in excellent facsimile. His decipherment of the manuscript is a diplomatic (to use the palaeographer’s word) triumph; but his ability to interpret the results, to follow Beethoven’s moment-by-moment creative track seems at times miraculous. Examining measures 25-6 of the exposition, he notices that before Beethoven entirely abandoned his first version (that is, cancelled and wrote over it in the autograph), he
took the trouble to touch up the voice-leading at the end of m. 26 in the Vcl, twice revising the final triplet ... He then overlaid a second reading upon both measures, which reorganises the registral layout of the lower voices, makes the Vcl the bass to the Pfte, transfers the triplets to the Pfte and to a different register, and clarifies the sonority by removing the triplets from the Vcl at low register. The second version agrees with the final one; and it is doubly instructive that at mm. 164-165, the parallel passage in the recapitulation, only the second version is present, with no trace of revision.
Lockwood’s nitty-gritty (but sometimes oddly suspenseful) approach to the creative process is revelatory.
His reading of the development section in the autograph yields insights yet more drastic. Beethoven’s alterations now are legion: the manuscript is more ink than intelligibility and reveals ‘nothing less than the total recasting of the roles of Vcl and Pfte throughout the section’. It is possible here to unravel – and Lockwood does – ‘two full-length versions of the entire development ... The second is superimposed upon the first.’ The reason for such late and far-reaching revision is the radical concept of the work itself: it is essentially the first sonata for these two instruments in which the cello is not merely an obbligato accompaniment to the piano. The search for a balanced interplay of the two instruments was arduous and entailed the creation of an unusual formal structure whose first phrase is played by the cello alone: a lasting shock comparable to that produced by the solo opening of the Fourth Piano Concerto (1805). This much had been determined when Beethoven began the autograph: its first page is the only one without notational amendments (an Italian tempo marking has been messily scratched out and revised as Allo ma no tanto, and there are the mandatory inkblots). No sooner had Beethoven embarked on his fair copy than he began recomposing the work. (In fact, he insatiably recomposed his music whenever he took it up at all, before publication or after.) It was apparently only ‘when he had written down one version of the development in this autograph [that he saw] how he really wanted the two instruments to be fitted together’.
Lockwood’s intensive discussion is confined to the autograph of the sonata’s first movement, but commenting on the misprint list which Beethoven later sent to Breitkopf and Härtel he throws up a suggestion about the scherzo for us – and especially for cellists – to conjure with. It seems that Beethoven’s final thought on the dynamic inflection of the piano’s syncopated opening phrase was, astonishingly, that it should be piano on the first two (tied) beats followed immediately by for-tissimo for the tied second pair, and that this should be repeated whenever the phrase reappears in the movement, which is constantly. This kind of textual crux does not stem from the illegibility of Beethoven’s handwriting. Lockwood observes that despite the intimidating appearance of the Cello Sonata autograph – the blots and scratchings, the manifold labour-saving graphic conventions which Beethoven habitually employed – it contains ‘remarkably little that is really uncertain or imprecise’. All the information is there; and Lockwood goes so far as to call the manuscript ‘an essentially pure text’.
The idea that there is always strict method in Beethoven’s mss though they seem like calligraphic madness is further developed by Lockwood’s meticulous analysis of the sketches for the 1815 song ‘Sehnsucht’, two exiguous-looking pages of which he offers in facsimile. By demonstrating that Beethoven’s repeated attempts to define the contour and rhythm of the opening declamation have a precise and localised purpose, he helps dislodge the received notion, promulgated by Gustav Nottebohm (1817-82), the father of Beethoven sketch-studies, who influentially published 16 melodic entries from the ‘Sehnsucht’ sketchbook in 1887, and sustained by such unlikely commentators as Stephen Spender (whom Lockwood quotes), that Beethoven’s first ideas were clumsy and could be refined into masterpieces only by a generalised sort of titanic struggle. Instead of losing himself in pious admiration of Beethoven’s persistence in building sublime edifices out of allegedly coarse materials, the student should focus ‘on the variety of specific structural purposes that the sketches seem to have been designed to fulfil’.
Four of the essays are concerned with the Eroica Symphony. With Lockwood’s virtuoso handling, the sketch-sources provide important insights about, inter alia, the genesis of the finale (deliberately working with material he had used before, Beethoven paradoxically hammers out ‘the most fully original symphonic finale that [he] had written up to this time’) and the famous ‘wrong’ horn entrance just before the recapitulation of the first movement. There is a discussion of Beethoven’s techniques of ‘closure’ between one movement and the next in middle-period chamber works and a beguiling 1986 lecture largely about Beethoven’s omission of the repeats that he originally planned in the first movement of the String Quartet Opus 59, No 1. Perhaps because here he is addressing an audience, Lockwood makes a rare foray into figurative language. With a flourish worthy of Stephen Jay Gould, he produces a metaphor drawn from Swift and the Scientific American to exemplify the idea that there is an ‘approximate correlation between the size of a work of art and the “amount of aesthetic experience” that it contains’. That implied balance would be tipped if the whole of the development and recapitulation of the already unprecedentedly large-scale first movement of Opus 59, No 1 were to be repeated, as Beethoven at first intended.
It is essentially the professional scholar who is addressed in these scrupulous pages, which at the same time nearly always have relevance for the performer. The final chapter, a 1971 lecture (hitherto unpublished), is specifically concerned with the value of Beethoven autograph studies to the modern interpreter, and while exhortatory – it ends with a strongly-felt plea for musicologists and performers to enter into closer dialogue and for the training of performers to include proper exposure to source-studies, to ‘analysis in its creative and historical framework’ – it also finds Lockwood at his most engaging and informative to the layman. This is a summary of his thinking unencumbered by intimidating talk of bifolia and fascicles and binary gatherings (though the ugly word tonicization slips in). It instantly claims our attention with its deft demonstration of how Beethoven created that striking effect of a parabolic fall and rise of tonic F major wind chords in the Eighth Symphony’s finale simply by crossing out of the autograph at the last minute the other constituents of ‘a full-blown orchestral tutti fanfare’. Lockwood goes on to indicate how a comparison of the autograph and early published editions of the Waldstein Piano Sonata reveals wrong notes in modern editions, and to emphasise the benefits to the performer of familiarity with the dots and strokes and spacings and hairpins of Beethoven’s actual notation. With its plentiful idiosyncrasies, in ‘the deep meaning of the connecting beams’ and ‘the subtle eloquence of the slurs’, to quote Heinrich Schenker (as Lockwood does), it amounts to a direct transcription of the way Beethoven ‘heard musically’, with implications for dynamics and articulation that should not be neglected. Lockwood shows how even the choice, against convention, of downward rather than upward stems for the opening phrase of the Pastoral Symphony tells the reader of the autograph something important about the music’s performance.
Lockwood winds up the chapter and the book with a quotation from a draft document in which Beethoven expresses dismay at the multiplication of error in editions of his work brought out by publishers more interested in money than in music. ‘The human brain is not a saleable commodity,’ the ‘brain-owner’ insists. Lockwood’s book, epitomising the research of a brilliant, still flourishing generation of analytically enlightened sketch-scholars (Alan Tyson, Joseph Kerman, Douglas Johnson, Robert Winter, William Kinderman, Barry Cooper) is to such venal misprisions a corrective of which the beleaguered Beethoven may have hardly dared to dream.