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14 minutes reading time (2738 words)

Opus 111: A revelation

No one questions that Beethoven's controversial choices in his work are appreciated as groundbreaking. But nearly anyone would question a choice made by a young pianist to deviate from instructions printed in Urtext scores. As a young student, celebrated pianist and best-selling author Seymour Bernstein made that conscious choice in a passage of Beethoven's Sonata Opus 111—a choice met with understandable disapproval by Bernstein's teacher. But a gift that Bernstein received years later revealed a surprising discovery. His instincts compelling him to stray from the score in Beethoven's monumental work were validated.

To our knowledge, the information in Bernstein's accounting of an editorial marking in Opus 111 is reported here for the first time. Perhaps only Beethoven will ever know the answer to whether he is the mystery editor in the manuscript described by Bernstein, and perhaps Beethoven's communication truly transcends the written page.

It is commonly agreed that Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111, is among the monumental achievements of all time. Since its publication in 1823, its profound message has inspired creative figures in all the arts. It would be difficult, for example, to find a more dramatic account of Op. 111 than that given by Dr. Kretzschmar, the eccentric and inspirational musicologist in Thomas Mann's novel, Doctor Faustus.

I first began to study Op. 111 when I was twenty-five years old. I was a pupil of Alexander Brailowsky at the time (his only pupil), and bravely decided to play it for him at one of my lessons. No sooner did I announce to my maître what I intended to play, than he fairly exploded at me in his thick Russian accent: "No! You must not play this sonata until you are fifty!" Although I had practiced it diligently and felt thoroughly prepared, Brailowsky refused to hear it. Fortunately, I had other works ready to perform for him at that lesson.

Is twenty-five, or sixteen, or even twelve too young to play late Beethoven? I believe it all depends on our genetic programming, and the kind of talent we have. The notion of having to be a particular age to play certain repertoire is, in my opinion, an antiquated pedagogical theory. Beginners at the piano must certainly adhere to sequential steps that build a foundation for the future. But I believe that a pianist of twenty-five who has already performed many times in public should be free to choose his own repertoire. I have met some teachers who believe, for example, that pianists ought not to tackle late Beethoven sonatas unless they have studied and performed the earlier ones, beginning with Op. 2, No. 1. As I have discovered during my own teaching career, there is a tendency among some teachers to pass on to their students their own strengths and weaknesses, as parents might do with their children. At twenty- five, I was not experienced enough to account for Brailowsky's pronouncement of having to be fifty to play Op. 111; nor would I have dared ask him to explain why he thought that. I only remember being perplexed, more so because a year earlier, I had played Beethoven's Op. 110 for him, and the Bagatelles, Op. 126, which he had admired tremendously. Of course, Op. 111 is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, and Brailowsky may have been acting like a protective parent in forbidding me to study it too early in my career. It is also possible that the work was not in his repertoire. In terms of repertoire choices, Brailowsky had gone his own way when he was around twenty-five. His forte was the romantic period, with a special affinity for Chopin. He was the first pianist to perform the complete Chopin cycle in public, a feat that he repeated ten times around the world. He was a great pianist, and I felt deeply privileged to study with him. At any rate, the incident with Op. 111 taught me a lesson: from that time on, I restricted the repertoire I brought him to works from the romantic period, and continued to work on late Beethoven by myself.

In 1958, I was awarded a Martha Baird Rockefeller grant to study in London for six months with the late Sir Clifford Curzon, and, subsequently, to make my debuts in five European capitals. Sir Clifford, revered by most musicians, was an artist whose interpretations of a large and varied repertoire were nothing short of transcendental. To my good fortune, he had planned to perform Op. 111 as part of his recital in New York City the following year. He was, therefore, eager to work on it with me.

Nothing escaped Sir Clifford's ears or eyes. Not surprisingly, then, he stopped me at once when he saw me divide my hands on the opening octaves of Op. 111 (see Excerpt 1).

"Laddie," he said sarcastically, "one day you'll come crawling to the keyboard if you continue to facilitate passages between your hands." (Years earlier, at Fontainebleau, France, he had observed and criticized my hand divisions, which I call "swindles," when I played Beethoven's Emperor Concerto for him at a master class.) "Beethoven specifically wrote those octaves to be played with the left hand alone in order to create a tension between the tones of the diminished seventh interval." "But Clifford," I protested (as soon as I arrived in London, Sir Clifford, who was Mr. Curzon at the time, insisted that I call him by his 'good Nordic name'), "I've tried playing those octaves with my left hand, but I invariably slip off the F-sharp. I am aware of the tension in that diminished seventh interval, and I thought that I had simulated it even using two hands." "Simulation, Laddie, is merely what the word implies," he said, with an air of annoyance. "I don't wish to discuss this any further. Let's get on with the lesson."1

This wasn't the only time that Sir Clifford expressed his annoyance with me. Nor were his criticisms confined to musical matters alone. On the one hand, he could be tender, generous, and almost embarrassingly complimentary. On the other, an innocent remark, or even the way I dressed, would unpredictably ignite his temper. There were times when I found his behavior unacceptable. Yet, I decided that the musical nourishment I received from him overrode all personal considerations.

My relationship with Sir Clifford spanned some twenty years. During that time, I was his official accompanist when he practiced his concerti in Steinway's basement during his biannual visits to New York City. He loved to play the role of the student, and often urged me to give him my opinion about interpretive issues. Suffice it to say that I was privy to some of his best playing, the sort of playing that one rarely hears. Like many purists, he didn't always practice what he preached, and occasionally divided his hands to facilitate certain unruly passages. Each time I caught him doing this, I jokingly admonished him, as he had done to me years before in London. He always enjoyed such moments of humor.

To return to the lesson on Op. 111, matters went surprisingly well until I came to the cresc. in measure 118 of the second movement. See the first arrow in Excerpt 2.

This cresc. appears in all the urtext editions currently available. Five measures before this cresc., the right hand trills ascend in a crescendo to the far reaches of the treble, and the bass enters on an explosive B-flat at the sf and descends to a low F deep in the bass. The ever-widening intervals created by contrary motion between the bass and treble continue right through to measure 119. By the time one arrives at the tied high B-flat in the right hand, and the low F in the left (marked in Excerpt 2 with the vertical double- headed arrow), the bass and treble finally come to rest five-and-a- half octaves apart. For a brief moment, the hands and arms remain outstretched, as though in a position of supplication. The first time I encountered this moment in Op. 111, I wondered whether Beethoven intended to simulate a crucifixion. Whatever his intention, this passage has always aroused feelings of grief and resignation within me. Because of these feelings, the very last thing I want to do is to make a crescendo. On the contrary. While my arms and hands are pulled away from my torso, and remain outstretched, my instinct is to make a diminuendo. Yet, around the time of my lessons with Sir Clifford, making a diminuendo invariably triggered a sense of guilt within me for disobeying Beethoven's indication. I rarely disregard a composer's marking, unless I suspect an editorial mistake.

I knew, of course, that avoiding the cresc. would not sit well with Sir Clifford. "Laddie," he began acerbically, "there's a cresc. marked there. And you made a diminuendo." I explained to Sir Clifford my feelings about this passage, such as I described above. "But Laddie," he implored, "you can't ignore Beethoven's indication. You don't have to make an exaggerated crescendo, but you have at least to keep up the sound, and not go to the opposite extreme." "Clifford," I replied as humbly as I could, "I know that I'm naughty and disrespectful to Beethoven, and to you as well, but I simply can't make that crescendo."

Sir Clifford heatedly admonished me for being so stubborn. Yet, a moment later, he reverted back to the patient master in discussing the rest of the movement. Although he was peeved at me, something in his manner told me that he admired my conviction, and even my refusal to obey his suggestion.

Sir Clifford Curzon was undoubtedly the greatest teacher I ever had. Except for occasional intervals of conflict, we enjoyed a close and inspirational relationship until his death in 1982.

After my debuts in Europe, I returned to my New York City apartment and discovered a mountain of mail waiting for me. Conspicuous in the batch was a large, beautifully-wrapped package, which I opened at once. Its content made me gasp in amazement; for there was the facsimile of Beethoven's autograph of Op. 111, a gift from my late friend Sheila Aldendorff. One glimpse of this wonderful gift, and I placed all other responsibilities on hold. I sat down and with mounting wonderment turned the pages of the facsimile until I found measure 118 in the second movement. As though to delay my curiosity, the pagination was such that the ascending trills appeared at the bottom of a page, the final measure of the page coinciding with measure 117 in the urtext score (see Excerpt 3, next page).

My heart quickened as I turned the page to examine measure 118. What I saw caused my mouth to fall open in utter astonishment: the cresc. that had occupied my thoughts for so long and the indication p beside it were not there. A closer look revealed smudges and a leftover dash, suggesting that those indications had been erased. The first arrow in Excerpt 4 points to the spot where p and cresc. ought to have been; the second arrow points to a telltale dash—probably a remnant from a series of dashes after the word cresc.

My first thought was that my friend Sheila Aldendorff had erased the word and the p from the facsimile, knowing that I refused to make that crescendo. I immediately phoned her, thanked her profusely for the gift, and asked if she had, indeed, erased those marks from measure 118. "Of course not," she said defensively. "You never discussed that issue with me. I don't know what you're talking about."

When I hung up the phone, I traced my finger over the area where the p and cresc. should have been. The page was smooth. So Beethoven himself, or else someone in his circle of acquaintances must have erased those marks in his manuscript. At that point, I felt goose bumps mounting on my skin. Finding confirmation of an instinct was, for me, comparable to experiencing a revelation. I lost no time in phoning Sir Clifford in London to tell him of my discovery. He was utterly amazed.

The erasure in the autograph would seem to indicate that Beethoven did not want a p and a cresc. at measure 118. Yet questions remain that challenge this assumption. For one thing, Beethoven is supposed to have corrected the final proofs of his last three sonatas. If it was Beethoven who erased the cresc. and p from the autograph, did he then carelessly forget to delete those indications in the proofs? If so, this merely lends credence to the suggestion that composers are the very last people who ought to be trusted with proofreading their scores. It is also possible that Beethoven changed his mind, and opted for the cresc. and p after all. To compound the mystery, it is known that at least two other manuscript copies of Op. 111 existed and have been lost. Perhaps one of those manuscripts postdates this particular autograph, and contains those indications.

In measure 117, sf appears two times, along with a p in the bass and two closing hairpins. As to the closing hairpins, I have given my opinion about such symbols in my book, Chopin—Interpreting his Notational Symbols (Manduca Music Publishers, 2005); research has led me to conclude that hairpins, beginning with late Haydn, indicate tempo fluctuations. In many cases, they have a double meaning. I therefore believe that the hairpins in the bass and treble, measures 116-117, mean to broaden the tempo at the widest opening of the hairpin, and then gradually return to the tempo while making a slight diminuendo. The fact that Beethoven inserted the word "diminuendo" in measure 119 (see Excerpt 4) seems to prove that the closing hairpins in measures 116-117 have a meaning beyond diminuendo. Whatever the truth is, my feeling is unchangeable: I will always make a diminuendo as I rise to the high B-flat, and continue growing softer thereafter until I reach Beethoven's p at measure 120.

Excerpt 5 is my interpretation of measures 117-119. Since the piano indication at measure 118 has been erased from the autograph, I have taken the liberty of placing a marking of mf here. In addition, and with apologies to Beethoven, I replaced his piano indication in the bass, measure 117, with mf.

As I continued to practice and perform Op. 111, it increasingly stirred "the innermost recesses of my soul," to quote Aristotle. Yet, the level of my performances disappointed me. Once on the stag, I felt unworthy, unable to reach its lofty heights, and invariably I fell prey to anxiety. Finally, seventeen years after I had first begun to study Op. 111, I performed it in Alice Tully Hall in 1969, the year the the hall opened, and this time I felt that my playing of it was at least acceptable, if not perfect. That I was able to lose myself in the second movement, even in such an awe-inspiring new venue, was a breakthrough for me.2 As I think about it now, I might as well have been the student in Eugen Herrigel's book Zen in the Art of Archery (New York, Vintage Books, 1971), who, after years of training with his Master, finally learned to breathe properly: "I learned to lose myself so effortlessly in the breathing that I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but— strange as this may sound—being breathed." Similarly, that after- noon on the stage of Tully Hall, I had the feeling that the notes of Op. 111 and the spirit of Beethoven himself were informing me of their secrets, and guiding my hands on the keyboard. I was, in a sense, being played.

1When Sir Clifford performed Op. 111 at Hunter College the following year, he was magnificent, save for one detail: in playing the opening octaves with his left hand alone, he slid off the F-sharp, thus creating a cacophony of sound that visibly upset him. "Stubborn man," I thought to myself. "I told you so!" 

2This live performance is now part of my 2-CD package entitled Retrospective (Manduca Music Publishers, 2005).

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