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Beethoven's Sketches

a brief excerpt from one of my lecture-demonstrations presented March 1997

     Recently, I've been absolutely captivated by the studies that have been made of Beethoven's sketchbooks. We all know Beethoven had unbelievably sloppy handwriting -- he was forever castigating his copyists, once writing to his publisher "mistakes -- mistakes -- you yourself are a unique mistake --"

     But of course it wasn't really their fault, and it's been only in the last few decades of our own century that music scholars have been able to decipher Beethoven's handwriting on the over 8,000 pages of sketches that have survived. These sketches are being gradually transcribed and written out in printed form for us to study.

     As we know, a good deal of Beethoven's composing was actually done outdoors. Beethoven loved nature and virtually every day went out on long walks in the city or the country in which he would sing, hum unintelligibly (so they say) and jot down sketches on loose sheets of paper he carried with him.

     Beethoven probably sketched more than any other major composer -- sometimes he would go through a dozen different versions of a passage before settling on the "right" one, the one that seems so familiar to us today. I've been fascinated by how much these sketches reveal about Beethoven's genuis and his creative process.

     Beethoven typically begins with a little sketch, something very short and generally quite uninspired, just a germ of a simple, rudimentary idea that anybody could have written -- but then he magically transforms this idea into something so distinctly different it takes your breath away. Somehow, he makes it all meaningful and moving.

     I'm amazed by how the final version is not just five or ten times better than the original sketch -- it's a thousand times better. There's some sort of qualitative jump, some sort of "aha!" experience that he must have had while composing which enabled him to transform these sketches into true works of art. Learning about these transformations, the behind-the-scenes stages of his creative workings, has greatly increased my appreciation of his genius...

Perhaps at some point in the future I can supplement this web-page with some musical examples from my talk. The original lecture-demonstration explored the "Tempest" Sonata, to which quite a number of Beethoven's sketchbooks have survived intact. In the actual presentation, I illustrated at the piano the differences between what Beethoven originally sketched, later sketches, and the final version he settled on. Much of the thoughts in this lecture-demonstration are an expansion of the excellent material in Barry Cooper's Beethoven and the Creative Process (Oxford University Press, 1990), which I highly recommend.

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)