The Ninth will sound the same, and so will the Fifth. Beethoven will still be Beethoven - only a bit more so - because of a British musicologist who painstakingly is restoring the composer’s symphonies.
Average listeners probably won’t bolt from their seats in epiphany upon hearing the restorations, the first since the composer’s death 150 years ago.
But after a dozen years of comparing Beethoven’s original scribblings with later copies, Jonathan Del Mar is giving the music world reason to reconsider long-held notions of the composer’s work - and the popular image of Beethoven as a sloppy genius.
Del Mar’s first corrected symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth, was published last week by Baerenreiter musical publishers, of Kassel, Germany. But the corrections already have been performed by many conductors, including John Eliot Gardiner, who incorporated them in his 1994 recording of the Ninth.
“They are not footnotes,” Gardiner said. “I think anyone who is at all serious about interpreting Beethoven’s symphonies will find they have totally new insights into the workings of that extraordinary mind.”
It long has been acknowledged that copyists and music publishers have introduced errors into Beethoven’s nine symphonies over the years. Never before, however, have all the symphonies been corrected, due in part to the sheer volume of notes in a symphony. Del Mar’s version of the Ninth is 350 pages long.
He plans to finish the remaining eight symphonies by 2000, several years ahead of a similar project by the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, a cultural center dedicated to preserving the composer’s work.
Only when the center finishes all its restorations will it be possible to compare them with Del Mar’s.
Whether Del Mar’s own corrections to the Ninth alter listeners’ experience depends on how familiar they are with the symphony.
“If they knew the piece, and were listening attentively, I would hope that 30 times they would sit upright and think, ‘Oh!”’ Del Mar said by telephone from London.
0ne of the major alterations, in a horn passage, transforms a repetitive ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum, the way it has been played for at least the past 100 years, to a series of ties that Del Mar says sustains the passage. Del Mar sounds it out: “Dum tah-tah-tah ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum tah-tah.”
“The whole perception of the passage is altered,” he said.
The other hundreds of changes may be as slight as removing a dot denoting a staccato that Del Mar says Beethoven never placed in the text himself, though it was clearly intended.
Del Mar determined what he believes were Beethoven’s final notations through close comparisons of scores, some in Beethoven’s own hand, in libraries and private collections throughout Europe.
Though Beethoven’s original texts were a copyist’s nightmare, Del Mar said, in reality, Beethoven “was remarkably meticulous.”
He sometimes wrote and rewrote a pair of notes, crossing out bar after bar until there was only a tiny clear space left to record his final thought, which often was overlooked when the piece was copied. Musical transitions were lost, replaced in passages by unintended repetition.
Del Mar’s new versions, Gardiner said, “will defuse the image of Beethoven as a flawed, capricious genius who never knew how to finish his pieces, who was in a state of permanent indecision as to how his music should sound.”
“Beethoven, despite his extremely untidy handwriting, will emerge as extremely clear in his thinking, someone who knew exactly what he wanted.”