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15 minutes reading time (2996 words)

A Place in the Sun: Recent Editions of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas

A Place in the Sun: Recent Editions of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas

The central position of Beethoven's piano sonatas in our musical life remains secure, to judge from the flood of new editions of these pieces to emerge in recent years. Students and teachers of these indispensable works are confronted by choices, but there are no easy solutions, as the following comparison shows. For the purposes of this review I have compared four recent editions: 

  • The Alfred Masterwork Edition, edited by Steward Gordon
  • The Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music version, edited by Barry Cooper
  • The Schemer release of Beethoven's sonatas including accompanying CDs, edited and recorded by Robert Taub. 
  • The ongoing new Henle publications of the sonatas, edited by Norbert Gertsch and Murray Perhia 
How valuable and authoritative are these editions? All of them make claims to authority or novelty in different ways. They offer introductory commentary, including selected and welcome illustrations drawn from Beethoven's original manuscripts. Closer inspection, however, reveals some telling differences in approach.

One obvious difference lies in the sheer number of sonatas. The London edition edited by Cooper trumpets "The 35 Piano Sonatas" as title of the three volumes; at the same time, he repeatedly stresses in his introduction the importance of being true to the composer's intentions. Yet Beethoven was sometimes quite particular about which works were granted opus numbers, and some of his impressive piano works—such as the "Righini" Variations, the C-Minor Variations, and the Andante favori—were not given opus numbers when published. Would Beethoven then have wanted an edition to place his three childhood sonatas—which were published for him when he was twelve years old—together on the same level with the thirty-two numbered mature masterpieces from the Vienna period? It is entirely fitting to include these "Electoral" Sonatas from 1783 in a comprehensive edition, but questionable to emphasize "35 Sonatas" as a selling point. More irritating is the printing of the editor's name at the head of every single sonata, as if in an effort to claim possession or seek merit through association, with the name "Beethoven" systematically juxtaposed with "Barry Cooper."

Further, Cooper's edition is not so thorough as it appears. Although he often refers to Beethoven's sketches and gives detailed information about compositional genesis, he ignores for example recent scholarship showing that Beethoven's initial sketches for the E-Major Sonata, Op. 109, date from 1819, and that the first sketches for the following A-flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, stem from 1820. Thanks to the internet, and the excellent Digital Archives of the Beethoven-Haus at Bonn, any curious musician can test this part of Cooper's commentary at a moment's notice. At the bottom of the third page of the "Wittgenstein" Sketchbook from 1819 held at the Beethoven-Haus (preceding early sketches for the "Diabelli" Variations on the next page), one finds Beethoven's prototype for the lyrical theme of the finale of Op. 109, here labeled "Thema" and written in A major rather than E major. Excerpt 1a provides my transcription of this sketch, and Excerpt 1b shows the final version of the theme.

Resources such as the Digital Archives in Bonn deserve to be more widely known, since it is now no longer necessary to have access to a good research library in order to gain ready access to many primary sources for Beethoven's piano music. For example, one notable recent publication of the Beethoven- Haus focuses on the composer's largest single contribution to the piano literature, the "Diabelli" Variations, Op. 120; the recent acquisition of the autograph score of this work was enabled by a major fundraising drive supported by many distinguished musicians. This handsome two- volume publication from 2010 provides a color facsimile of the autograph score, along with a reproduction of the first edition and extensive commentaries. The Digital Archives at Bonn also provide access to the fascinating sketchbooks in which Beethoven worked on the Op. 120 Variations alongside other projects such as the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Similar resources exist for some of the piano sonatas, offering access to Beethoven's original handwritten notation in his scores as well as to sketchbooks in which he composed those pieces alongside works in other genres. With this enhanced access to sources, we are less dependent on the judgment of any particular editor.

What kind of accompanying commentary is most useful in an edition of the sonatas? Should it best be confined to information directly bearing on execution, such as phrasing and articulation, or should it also provide information related to musical character, meaning, and context? Taub's commentary is mainly confined to the first category; Cooper's remarks often also address the second. Especially fascinating and relevant for the performer are the parallels between Beethoven's two great middle-period sonatas—in C major, Op. 53, and in F minor, Op. 57—and his contemporaneous labors on his opera Fidelio, a work that shares the tonal symbolism of these sonatas. Cooper's comments in regard to Op. 57, the "Appassionata," that "Beethoven, having sketched the dungeon scene, decided that an instrumental explo- ration of some of its features would make an excellent starting point for a sonata," raise an intriguing point that demands more explanation.

If Florestan's "God!—what darkness here!" might serve as commentary on the conclusion of the "Appassionata" Sonata, the choral text "Hail to the day! Hail to the hour!" at the end of Fidelio might also be the motto for the jubilant coda of the "Waldstein" Sonata. A pianist's engagement with these works is enhanced by an awareness of the opera, whose polarity of tragic reality and redeeming deliverance is felt in the sonatas, not least in the direct connection of the contrasting middle movements to the finales. An interpretative challenge facing the performer of these works is how to convey the point of psychological transition to these final movements. In the Introduzione of the "Waldstein," the long ascending progression reaches high G, which then becomes the peak of the finale's main theme. Similarly, at the end of the Andante con moto in the "Appassionata," an arpeggiated pianissimo chord supplies as its highest tone the D-flat that would have belonged to the closing tonic chord, were it not subverted here by the harmonic substitution of the rolled diminished-seventh chord below it that launches the transition into the tragic sphere of F minor. Such a hybrid chord requires delicate voicing, and the special character of this particular sonority and of the entire transition, which reaches the beginning of the finale at the low F twenty-one measures later, can only be fully grasped in the context of the work as a whole.

Cooper's musical judgments about individual sonatas are sometimes questionable. In writing about the second movement of Op. 110, the scherzo-like Allegro molto, he rejects the connection to two Austrian folk songs, finding that the "Munter" ("lively") designation of the first tune, with its text "Our cat has had kittens," does not suit the "serious key of F minor" in the sonata. Despite the presence of a minor key, the humorous, burlesque character of this music has been recognized and conveyed by leading pianists including, among others, Alfred Brendel and András Schiff, and in no way do the sources contradict the impression that Beethoven here has absorbed elements drawn from the pair of folk songs into the music, thus lending a quality of rustic humor to this Allegro molto. Indeed, a further allusion to the second folksong in the double-diminution passage of the second fugue in the sonata's finale makes clear its role as a source of raw but vital energy that helps enable the affir- mative conclusion following the second "Arioso dolente" ("lamenting song").

A nagging problem confronting all editors of Beethoven's sonatas is the issue of detached articulation. In the original sources, Beethoven often employs vertical strokes as well as dots to designate shorter notes, and on occasion he insisted that strokes and dots should be differentiated. Yet editors of the sonatas have generally avoided addressing this matter and have usually rendered all detached notes uniformly as either dots or strokes. It is a positive sign that, of the four editions under consideration, only Stewart Gordon succumbs to that older tradition; the other editors make an attempt to differentiate these important signs. Nevertheless, not one of the editions in question rises to the challenge of conveying a transition between dots and strokes, as a series of somewhat longer but detached notes grows into a texture of more pointed, heavier articulations. A clear example where such a transition has been specified by Beethoven in his autograph score occurs in the opening variation movement of the Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 26, in bars 77-81 at the outset of Variation II. As this variation unfolds and gains momentum and intensity, with wider intervals appearing in octaves in the bass, Beethoven's dots gradually evolve into strokes, as makes perfect musical sense in this context. Beethoven's autograph score for this sonata has long been available in facsimile, having been published in 1894. Nevertheless, the task of conveying such evolving nuances in articulation in an edition of Op. 26 remains to be met. One hopes that a future editor will rise to the challenge!

The divergences of these editions are well illustrated by the much-disputed passage just before the recapitulation of the great "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106: Beethoven probably intended A-naturals there but neglected to include the needed natural signs. Stewart Gordon includes natural signs in parentheses in the musical text and remarks in a footnote that "those who support playing A-sharps claim that the originality of the progression is in keeping with the composer's daring." Cooper, more decisively, finds that "there are no grounds for playing an A# except a misguided devotion to Beethoven's carelessness." Taub, on the other hand, supports A# and plays the sharp in his accompanying performance on CD. His tempo for this movement is faster than that usually taken, and Beethoven's metronome marking indeed indicates a very swift tempo. However, this performance does not rank with the best recordings of Op. 106. Its glassy brilliance does not make up for a lack of nuance in character, voicing, and dynamics. Gordon rightly comments that the metronome indication is "much too fast for comfort and clarity."

The new Henle editions edited by Gertsch and Perahia have been appearing successively as issues of single sonatas or in pairs, a format reminiscent of the way the sonatas originally appeared in Beethoven's lifetime. Whereas the first and early editions of Beethoven's sonatas usually printed the pieces in oblong format, these Henle publications are in the familiar upright format, with more music in each page. The edition of Op. 14 prints the two sonatas together, as was done in the original edition of these works issued in 1799. The editorial comments offered by Gertsch and Perahia are concise and to the point, and include in this instance information drawn from Beethoven's own arrangement of Op. 14, No. 1, as a string quartet. Especially welcome are some of Perahia's sensitive observations about aspects of Beethoven's creative process, such as his remarks on sketches for the first sonata in E major, sources that point to subtle but readily audible relationships among the three movements. A nice enhancement to the Henle edition of the "Tempest" Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, is the inclusion of a facsimile and transcription of Beethoven's draft of the beginning of this work in the Kessler Sketchbook, accompanied by comments by Perahia. These Henle editions of single sonatas or work-pairs lend themselves well to concentrated study, and will prove practical to pianists when they devote themselves to practicing a single work. While keeping a comprehensive edition still within reach, the pianist can then focus attention effectively on an individual opus.

These new Henle editions inevitably invite comparison with their predecessors in the series as edited by B.A. Wallner, those familiar blue urtext volumes already in the possession of many pianists. The comparison is revealing. Despite the diligence of Gertsch and Perahia, some details in the Wallner edition are superior. For instance, in the E-Major Sonata, Op. 14, No. 1, second movement, there is a crescendo marking that every pianist has cause to ponder. In the measure before the Maggiore middle section, Beethoven designates a crescendo, although the bar in question contains only two notes: a high E following the pianissimo tonic chord in the preceding measure, and another E two octaves lower that acts as upbeat to the beginning of the Maggiore. Part of the expressive meaning of this crescendo sign must be gestural and not literal, but the placement of the symbol is crucial: does it refer to the high E or not? In Wallner's edition, the cresc. is printed at the beginning of the bar and refers to the high note; in the new Henle edition, the cresc. appears later, and can refer only to the held but decaying residue of sonority and to the following upbeat. In his edition, Cooper also places the crescendo to the right, and he comments that "some editors have moved it [the crescendo sign] to the beginning of the bar." This is incorrect: the positioning of the crescendo sign in the original print by Mollo from 1799 is not on the far right, but is left of center, and must be understood to refer to the high E. Only this placement makes musical sense: with the three quiet tonic chords closing the Allegretto, the music has come to rest, and a dynamic impulse then emerges with the high E, marking an intensification.

In another important respect, the older Wallner Henle edition is superior to the new Henle editions and to all other editions under discussion here: the visual appearance of the music itself, the Notenbild. In their layout, the new Henle prints are based directly on the older edition. If one contemplates the second movement of the E-Major Sonata, Op. 14, No. 1, striking similarities of the two editions are apparent. The measures are distributed on the pages in the same way. What is inferior in the newer edition, however, is the quality of the printing itself. The note heads are noticeably smaller and less distinct, as are the dynamic indications and other signs. The headings "Allegretto" and "Maggiore" are also more lightly printed. The subtle touch in the older edition of placing the editorial measure numbers inside circles has also disappeared. Placed on the music stand in front of the player, the newer edition is noticeably harder to read, and hence inferior to the earlier edition.

Yet the quality of music printing in the new Henle edition remains on a higher level than in the three comprehensive editions under consideration. In Cooper's edition of the coda of the Largo e mesto in Op. 10, No. 3, the measures with rapid figuration are spread widely across entire systems, with as many as seven bars crowded into single systems nearby; this disrupts the relationship between the musical symbols and their temporal meaning. Taub's Schirmer edition is particularly bad in this regard. A mechanistic element has infiltrated Beethoven's music here; the machine world has conquered the artistic one, at least as far as the layout and printing are concerned. Whole notes occupying entire bars are crowded together (as in Op. 31, No. 2, first movement), destroying the relation between the musical signs and the time which they represent; upbeats are crowded too close to the following bar lines. Does this music not merit quality typesetting? May pianists rise up against this assault on their eyes and their sensibility! The cluttered appearance of many pages is made worse by another tendency: overfingering, an overabundance of repetitive and sometimes questionable numbers spread mercilessly over the notes.

The basic problem with the layout is simple: computer music programs are often a poor substitute for traditional music engraving, and publishers are too stingy and editors too undiscriminating or hasty (or perhaps sometimes powerless) to improve matters. The same kind of technological advances that help give us valuable new access to Beethoven's original sources also tend to mangle the way his notes are presented on the page.

In conclusion, pianists should keep space for older editions beside the new ones, use their access to resources like the Beethoven-Haus Digital Archives to help clarify questions about the musical text, and beware of investing blind faith in any one available edition of Beethoven's sonatas.

The Beethoven Digital Archives in Bonn are accessible to the general public. To learn more, visit http://www.beethoven-

Editions Discussed

Beethoven Klaviersonaten, ed. B.A. Wallner. 2 vols. Munich: Henle, 1952, 1980. 

Beethoven Klaviersonaten, ed. Norbert Gertsch and Murray Perahia. Volumes containing Op. 14 (2006), Op. 31 No. 1 (2004), Op. 31 No. 2 (2003), Op. 31 No. 3 (2004), Op. 101 (2007).

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, ed. Robert Taub. 2 vols. New York: G. Schirmer, 2010 (includes CD recordings of all the sonatas by Robert Taub).

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, ed. Stewart Gordon, vol. 4 (Op. 79 to Op. 111). Los Angeles: Alfred Publishing.

Beethoven: The 35 Piano Sonatas, ed. Barry Cooper. 3 vols. London: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 2007.


Ludwig van Beethoven. The 32 Piano Sonatas in reprints of the first and early editions, principally from the Anthony van Hoboken Collection of the Austrian National Library, with prefaces by Brian Jeffery. London: Tecla, 1989.

Ludwig van Beethoven. 33 Variations in C major on a waltz by Anton Diabelli for piano Op. 120. Part 1: Autograph; Part 2: Facsimile of the Original Edition (Dedication Copy) and Commentaries. Bonn: Verlag Beethoven-Haus, 2010.

Beethoven's Sketchbook for the Missa solemnis and the Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, ed. William Kinderman. 3 vols. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Digital Beethoven-Haus Bonn (; see Digital Archives: Works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sketches by Beethoven with commentary in English and German.

Kinderman, William, Beethoven. 2nd expanded edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Newman, William, Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing His Piano Music His Way. New York: Norton, 1988.

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