Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Peek into Beethoven's "Engine Room"

Some reader's may recall Peter Grunberg talking almost a year ago about poking around in Johannes Brahms' "engine room" in preparing for a performance of the Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor. Where Ludwig van Beethoven is concerned, the primary path into his "engine room" is through his sketchbooks; but, thanks to the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection, I am discovering that there are also paths provided by earlier works, some of which were not published until after the composer's death. I recently encountered an interesting example in Beethoven's only three piano quartets (listed as WoO 36), whose manuscript is dated 1785. As Thayer observed, there is an interesting discrepancy in that Beethoven refers to himself as "Luis van Beethoven, agé 13 ans" (the number apparently having been changed from "14"), since Beethoven was born (as we know from Peanuts) on December 16, 1770; so we may just want to say that this was a product of his teen years. More interesting (the "engine room" part) is that these piano quartets use motives that would later surface in his Opus 2 piano sonatas, composed in 1794 and 1795 after he had gone to Vienna and began picking up the wisdom and influence of Joseph Haydn. One wonders if Beethoven may have showed the piano quartets to Haydn, who basically made it known that Beethoven could do much better things with those motives if he set his mind to it. This could explain both why Beethoven never published the piano quartets and why the Opus 2 piano sonatas (in which he did "much better things") were dedicated to Haydn! This is, of course, unabashed speculation; but such speculation often provides a useful anchor for listening practices, even if the conjecture is not as true as we would like it to be!

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