Sunday, August 06, 2006

Thumbs, Well-Armed Men and Generous Friends

An immensely generous friend recently offered me some bound copies of manuscripts by Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. I've been spending time with the ink spills (Beethoven Op. 101),

and the corrections (Chopin F-Major Ballade),

and the name changes (Brahms E-Major "Intermezzo" Op. 116 No. 4).

(Click on any of these photos for a bigger look.)

Beethoven sent a letter about his piano sonata Op. 101 to the Viennese publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner in 1816:

As regards a new sonata for pianoforte solo, all that need happen is for sixty well-armed men [i.e. gold ducats] to present themselves and it can be produced forthwith.

(Of course, it wasn't finished yet.)

I find real comfort in seeing the direct, inky result of Beethoven's thinking. In some ways it seems to offer proof of the brilliance and the absurdity of our system of musical notation.

The trademark, timeless, out-of-body thrill that comes when Beethoven writes a series of hovering trills seems to have an appropriate look in his hand:

While a publication can seem to take the thrill and imprison it:

When Brahms finished his exquisite set of Fantasies, Op. 116, he sent a copyist's manuscript to his trusted friend Clara Schumann. The E-minor Intermezzo begins this way:

The opening upbeat forces the thumbs to interlock, the one crossing over the other.
Brahms wrote an optional, bracketed fingering in his manuscript that kept the player's thumbs from getting entangled:

Along with the manuscript, Brahms wrote to Clara:

In the little piece in E minor it is probably best if you always take the sixth eighth-note as indicated by the bracket on the upbeat.

Clara wrote back:

First of all, my thanks for the marvelously original piano pieces, with which I am now fully acquainted. But I would not wish to hear the E minor piece with the small notes as the interlocking of the hands has a charm all its own, and indeed produces a completely different sound!

I'm sure Brahms must have caught the wisdom in his friend's words.

Where would any of us be without our generous friends?