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DF Tovey on performing Beethoven’s piano sonatas

March 22, 2009

In this Preface to the 1931 Associated Board edition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Donald Francis Tovey discusses some aspects of editing and performing Beethoven’s piano music.  Omissions are indicated by square brackets.


 A correct text of Beethoven is surely not as unattainable as a correct text of Shakespeare; with most of Beethoven’s works we possess his final autographs and any number of sketches; and for some works we possess what is even more valuable, the proof-sheets of the first edition with his autograph corrections.  In spite of these advantages, the conscientious editor finds innumerable problems of detail, not all of which can be definitely solved.  We may doubt whether a complete list of the problems of detail, not all of which can be definitely solved.  We may doubt whether a complete list of the problems will ever be made even within the single category of the pianoforte sonatas.  But Beethoven is by no means the most difficult composer to edit.  He took the utmost pains to edit his own works; and if his utmost pains have still left many problems for us to solve, the difficulties lie deep in the nature of his style and are not to be removed by hasty conjecture.  Beethoven is of all artists the one whom it is most impertinent to correct merely for the sake of system.  His art is not tidy; but it is inexhaustibly thoughtful, and the editor who indulges in the habit of correcting Beethoven’s discrepancies is depriving himself of innumerable opportunities of learning from Beethoven what would never have entered into his own editorial mind.

 Apart from editorial interference, the main source of error in the text of Beethoven’s works is the fact that Beethoven, though an excellent proof-reader, was not infallible.  Most of his oversights concern accidentals.  For these he had a better eye than Mozart, who seems, to judge by the facsimiles of his autographs now accessible to the public, to have deferred most of that question to the final proof-reading.  But Mozart, though as subtle an artist as every lived, is always systematic; and he could safely correct his proofs by rule of thumb, in this matter at all events.  With Beethoven nothing is more unsafe than to correct him by aiming at uniformity.  No musician is great enough to be justified in taking such a risk.  What then constitutes that chimera, an absolutely authentic and correct edition of Beethoven?  Evidently the “correctness” must be Beethoven’s.  If it is merely the editor’s, the authenticity has disappeared.  We need not condemn a correction as being merely the editor’s because that correction has not been made before.  Circumstantial evidence may be tantamount to the best available knowledge of the workings of the artist’s mind.  It is almost the only evidence that classical scholarship has.  Again, there are some points that occur systematically in manuscripts of certain periods.  Beethoven, however, presents us with only one problem that can be classified under this heading, and then only because there is at the present day no consistent practice in the notation of phrase-markings and slurs……From intimate knowledge of Beethoven’s style a few simple editorial principles may safely be formulated.

 [Sections 1 & 2 deal with doubtful readings and intentional irregularities.]

 3. Compass of the Pianoforte

 The compass of the pianoforte hampered Beethoven in all his works for it.  Up to the Kreutzer Sonata (Op. 47) the compass was, as with Mozart, five octaves, from F to F.  By the time the C minor Concerto (Op. 36) was printed, the compass had been extended upwards to C, and Beethoven was able to improve the pianoforte part of that work accordingly.  Later the compass varied, some instruments reaching the top F, some going down to the bottom C, and a few extended both ways.  Beethoven’s last sonatas show that he is not sure what will be available, for he sometimes restricts himself one way and sometimes the other.  The finale of Op. 101 is evidently for an instrument of wider compass than the other movements; and none of the three last sonatas, nor the Diabelli Variations and the Bagatelles Op. 126, have so wide a compass as Op. 106.  Beethoven sometimes thought of issuing a new edition of his earlier works revised so as to use the compass of later instruments.  Perhaps it was a deeper instinct, as well as the pressure of new works, that prevented him from carrying out this project.  It answered well enough with the C minor Concerto, where the changes were made while the composition was still his newest work.  But Beethoven had little reason to trust his judgment as to how to treat his early works after his style had changed.  To revise a work drastically down to the roots of its composition, as when the Leonore of 1805-6 became the Fidelio of 1814-this was a noble task.  But to alter the merely ornamental aspects of his earlier pianoforte style was a thing he would have done with hardly more sympathy than his pupil Czerny.  We have, indeed, Czerny’s own notes of some of the changes Beethoven made on the spur of the moment in playing his G major Concerto; and they are deplorable.  Beethoven himself allowed only one of them to reach the printers.

 4.  Pianoforte Style

 Beethoven writes for the pianoforte as for an instrument which he has thoroughly mastered.  He could play his own pianoforte works: and this is a more important fact to be considered in the interpretation of them than any later developments of pianoforte technique.  If the instrument has changed in the course of a century this is not going to make the interpretation of Beethoven easier.  Much of the change would have been very welcome to him: for he was always writing for ideal instruments.  But his ideals were very firmly rooted in facts; and the facts of Beethoven’s pianoforte are not things we can safely neglect, nor are all modern developments in the direction of Beethoven’s ideals.  His deafness put it out of his power to correct his later works by experiment.  But the results of this have been enormously exaggerated; and features of his style have been ascribed to deafness when they are not only the logical development of tendencies manifest in Haydn and Mozart but are also beautiful in themselves if sympathetic playing gives them a chance.  This is particularly the case with the enormous distance Beethoven often allows between his treble and bass.  From its earliest days one of the principal charms of the pianoforte was its suggestiveness.  The earliest pianofortes were far less rich in tone than the best harpsichords; yet composers and players cheerfully consented to lost all the octave-couplings and contrasts of colour that the several stops of a large double harpsichord provided.  The direct control of touch by the player’s fingers was worth more than any such material resources; and the fact that long notes on the pianoforte are evanescent was never felt as a hindrance to the suggestion of sustaining power…….Clearly, then, the classical art of pianoforte playing was always an art of suggestion; and it makes not difference to the power of suggestion that the half-period of the pianoforte strings was far shorter a century ago than it is now.

 5.  Pedal

 The thing that has become most changed by the longer tone of our instruments is the effect of the damper-pedal.  This changed perceptibly during Beethoven’s own lifetime; and his indications of pedalling must be studied with caution.  Fortunately, like all composers who have a practical grasp of the conditions of good performance, Beethoven shows in this matter a common-sense which time does not invalidate.  He indicates only the larger pedal effects which suit all conditions.  It is not to be supposed that he or any other important composer (except Liszt in his very last works) attempts to indicate the use of the pedal for details of legato playing where harmonies are constantly changing.  The art of playing without pedal is rarer that it ought to be.  But it always was a special art and always will be so.  We have plenty of testimony that Beethoven, while he was still able to hear what he was doing, used the pedal constantly, with the highest art and in ways that were not remotely indicated by his written directions.  On the early pianofortes many things could be allowed which would sound very messy on our present instruments.  Thus Beethoven could in a pianissimo, take the whole first eight bars of the slow movement of the C minor Concerto with the pedal unchanged through all the modulations.  In the first movement of the C sharp minor Sonata he probably never changed the pedal at all.  Indeed, it seems as if the pedal did not act very readily, for in the slow movement of the C minor Concerto when Beethoven finds it necessary to specify changes for thick bass arpeggios he allow half a beat (at about 120 of the metronome – i.e., half a second) to make the change.

 In the earliest days of the pianoforte it was even questionable whether dampers were worth while.  Philipp Emanuel Bach said that an undamped instrument fired the imagination; thereby anticipating Schumann’s morbid habit of extemporising with the pedal immovably down.

 Be this as it may, Beethoven’s pedal marks are full of interest and can, for the most part, be taken almost literally.  Nobody, for instance, is justified in putting pedal into the arpeggios of the first theme of the final of the C sharp minor Sonata.  Beethoven explicitly reserves the pedal for the sforzando chords and sets great store by his staccato bass.

 [Discussion of unjustified editorial additions to Beethoven’s pedal marks.]

 There is little or no difficulty in seeing where Beethoven’s pedal-marks cannot be taken literally.  Most of them concern big stretches of arpeggio with nothing to disturb them: but occasionally, as in the Rondo of the Waldstein Sonata, Beethoven indicates a pedal up a scale-passage which few teachers will venture to approve.  But even here his pedal is quite possible for one bar if the initial bass octave is powerful and the scale taken lightly.  No Chopin-player would hesitate to use a discreet pedal in a bass of similar purport in Chopin’s F sharp minor Polonaise, where the notation in grace-notes shows the kind of scale needed.  But we cannot nowadays continue Beethoven’s pedal through his second bar where the scale descends again in staccato semiquavers.  These demand full tone.  On the other hand, a pianoforte that would tolerate pedal through the whole theme of the slow movement of the C minor Concerto cannot have sounded like a modern pianoforte without use of the pedal at all.  In some ways it must have sounded more subtle than our most refined half-pedallings.  Nothing less than our best efforts can replace the suggestiveness of the earlier pianofortes; and it is vexation of spirit and commit these efforts to musical notation.  No two instruments require the same treatment.  The player must train his ear and judge by it.  One very interesting passage admits of a special treatment today.  Beethoven was able to play the recitatives in the first movement of the D minor Sonata “with open pedal” (as Haydn said in a sonata published in London in 1789).  The effect was, as Beethoven desired, like a voice coming from a vault.  Something very like it can be produced now by merely continuing to hold the low bass chord through the recitative; or, on large instruments, by the more cautious device of silently putting down the that chord (or any notes whatever) in the extreme bass an octave lower.  The reverberation from the strings thus set free is very like a subtle pedal effect.  As such it does not carry far, but is quite perceptible in a small room.  And the concert room is not only or even the best place for such music.

 [Tovey discusses slurs and phrasing.]

 Tovey, DF, Preface, Beethoven Sonatas for Pianoforte, Vol. III, Ed. Harold Craxton, The Associated Board, 1931, pp.4-6.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 12, 2009 5:01 pm

    thanks for that piece of information. very helpful.

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