Saturday, June 07, 2008

correcting Beethoven

Certain composers seem to be more error-prone than others -- lots of missing accidentals, bars with extra beats, etc., whether it's their own fault or the copyist and editors'. Then there are the composers who tend to write notes that look like mistakes but aren't -- I'm thinking of Stravinsky, who made 'wrong notes' part of his style, especially in neo-classical scores like Pulcinella, which he revised from material by Pergolesi and others. If you tried to fix all the wrong notes, you'd be left with nothing nearly as interesting.

Then there's Beethoven, who was famously sloppy (and deaf), but he was such a genius that it seems almost sacrilegious to tamper with his scores. We're playing his 2nd Symphony today, using the new Barenreiter 'Urtext' by Jonathan Del Mar, which still has a lot of problems and questionable stuff. My stand partner Graeme Mudd pointed out a whole slew of inconsistencies in the second movement: repeating figures with different note lengths and articulations, dynamics apparently displaced by a measure, or just missing entirely. Two hundred years after he wrote this symphony, Beethoven may be our most famous and universally admired composer, but we still have to spend a lot of rehearsal time correcting him. Or did he mean to write it like that?

My teacher at NEC, Donald Palma, made a very memorable argument one day that he did mean exactly what he wrote, at least in terms of the cello-bass octave transpositions. Beethoven's cello and bass parts are traditionally printed together -- a tradition broken by that new Barenreiter edition -- and a lot of bass players will jump down an octave when they see the cellos are playing in our register, figuring that Beethoven wrote for instruments that either didn't have the low C or weren't able to use it with much facility. There's a long passage like this in the first movement of the 7th Symphony, and also in the 9th. Don's argument was that deaf or not, Beethoven was an extremely precise orchestrator, who never cared much about the technical limitations of the instruments of his day. When played in a true unison, with the basses and cellos at the same octave, those passages have an eerie, spectral quality that may have been exactly what he was going for.

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