Thursday, October 17, 2002


Autograph copy of the Piano Trio in D-Major, op. 70 no. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Currently in the Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.

There is a scene in the film Amadeus where Mozart's wife, Constanze, in a fit of some desperation takes a portfolio of her husband's musical works to Antonio Salieri, the court composer for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. She does this because they are in dire need of money, but Mozart is too proud to present his works to the musical "authorities" as is required for certain types of employment. Salieri glances through them and asks if he can keep them, thinking that they are copies. Constanze replies, "Well, he'll miss them. You see, they are originals." Salieri's eyes widen as he looks again at the works in the portfolio: page upon page of handwritten, original music, perfectly laid out in a hand neater than that of some copyists, such that the music could be performed on the spot if need be. As Salieri whispers in his voice-over narration, "It was as if he had been merely taking dictation from God."

How interesting, then, to compare that image -- Mozart's music, perfectly conceived and written on the page with not a note out of place -- with a page of manuscript in Beethoven's hand: Beethoven, who may be the most famous musical figure of all time and the greatest of all classical composers. For Beethoven there was no direct link to the divine; music did not pour from him, already complete and perfect. Beethoven had to experiment. He had to test musical ideas. He had to sketch them out. If Beethoven realized that his music had gone awry, he would heavily scratch out the offending passage and continue composing on the same page. It fits in with the image we have of Beethoven: the tortured soul on the leading edge of Romanticism, trying to defy his growing deafness, conducting his epochal Symphony No. 9 and having to be physically turned toward the audience to see that they were applauding, tearing off the cover of his Symphony No. 3 in rage upon learning that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, amakening from his death-coma just long enough to shake his fist at the heavens before succumbing in the end.

How miraculous Beethoven's music seems, in the face of such struggle merely to create it.

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