10/14/2005

A Historic Discovery, in Beethoven's Own Hand - New York Times

Heather Carbo, a matter-of-fact librarian at an evangelical seminary outside Philadelphia, was cleaning out an archival cabinet one hot afternoon in July. It was a dirty and routine job. But there, on the bottom shelf, she stumbled across what may be one of the most important musicological finds in years.

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 manuscript's last known mention was at that auction in 1890, in Berlin, with no reference to a buyer. The buyer is now believed to have been William Howard Doane, a Cincinnati industrialist with a penchant for composing hymns.

In 1952, Doane's daughter made a gift to the seminary, then known as the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The gift, to establish a chapel, included music manuscripts. Among them were Mozart's Fantasia in C minor and Sonata in C minor, a major Mozart find.

Fifteen years ago, a researcher looking for historical records stumbled across the manuscripts in a safe at the seminary. Sotheby's auctioned off the Mozart and other works for $1.7 million. Since then, rumors persisted that a Beethoven work was floating around somewhere in the seminary. ..

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 manuscript is written on several different types of paper with a paper-covered board binding, apparently from the 1830's. The title has the word "fugue" misspelled as "tugue." Bound at the back is a first print edition.

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!"

A Historic Discovery, in Beethoven's Own Hand - New York Times

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