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German composer.

Career Summary

Beethoven grew up and studied in Bonn, but in 1792 left for Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life, coming to be thought of as a Viennese composer, and to be grouped with Haydn and Mozart as one of the three leading exponents of the "Viennese classical style." Since the early 19th century, his nine symphonies have been pillars of the orchestral repertory; his solo concertos, string quartets, sonatas for piano solo, violin and piano, and cello and piano, and much else have also achieved canonic status.

Beethoven and Schenker

Early Theoretical Works: 1901–11

Beitrag and Harmonielehre

Beethoven, as man and artist, was a central preoccupation of Schenker's throughout his career. Already in the first edition of his Beitrag zur Ornamentik (1903), the title of which includes the phrase "including also the ornamentation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven etc.", Schenker devoted time to the nature and performance of embellishment in Beethoven's music, and this treatment was expanded in the second edition (1908). In Harmonielehre (1906), the number of music examples drawn from Beethoven far exceeds that from any other composer.

Unpublished Works

Schenker's first declarative statement of Beethoven's status is given in his unpublished "Decline of the Art of Composition," the provisional earlier title of which was "Beethoven or Wagner?" (CA 27, June 4, 1906), written probably between 1905 and 1909. Enumerating all the genres in which Beethoven worked, before going on to criticize subsequent composers for the insufficiency and lack of breadth of their productivity, he remarks: Note [...] the abundance within each genre: nine symphonies, sixteen string quartets, thirty-two piano sonatas, and so on. Every genre comprises quite a few pieces. What a wealth of work! And all this with severe physical affliction, which allowed the master to live a mere fifty-seven years! (134/36)

He speaks of the "wonderful instinct for associations and parallelisms" to be found in the masters, citing instances in Beethoven's works and concluding "Beethoven would never have dared merely to set down a germ or a series of tones, i.e. without an effect for the synthesis" (156/59–60). When speaking of Beethoven's use of instruments he remarks "what cannot be accounted for or shown by the synthesis will not yet be produced sonically" (157/60). Synthesis is thus the organizing principle by which Beethoven worked. Contrasting Beethoven with Wagner, he states that the former "in reality thought of form only in absolutely musical terms and, when the occasion arose, additionally used impulses of life, moods, and images," and that "it is precisely Beethoven who shows most clearly how important it is to organise musical content into two or three parts" (201/104).

In his unpublished treatise on performance Die Kunst des Vortrags, which dates from around 1911, Schenker remarks that whereas music before the Classical period tended to be "ceaseless," "in a Beethoven movement already the rhetorical rests offer the performer the relief of breathing," and talks of Beethoven's as a "more 'speaking' manner" in contrast to the "'connected' world of Bach" (p. 70).

Monograph and Elucidatory Edition: 1912–21

The Ninth Symphony

In 1910, Schenker began to envision a series of monographs ("independent repertory appendices"), which would amplify in practical terms what was stated theoretically in his series Neue musikalische Theorien und Phantasien. Significantly, his first monograph was on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Intended initially to be accompanied by a score giving only Beethoven's original markings, the monograph sets out to release the symphony from the accretions of 19th-century performers and commentators, and to present Beethoven as an exemplar of musical genius, uncovering for the first time "the laws of tonal construction" governing the work.

Beethoven, Schenker polemicized in 1914, "is already performed as Viennese children in lower school speak Latin; just as Latin is falsified and travestied in the Sperlgasse [Gymnasium], so equally dead is the language that is given out on the podium as a living musical language" (OJ 5/16, [2]). In his monograph, Schenker deploys formal charts and discusses thematic construction using conventional terminology, but examines the work in its own terms rather than with reference to extra-musical ideas. Schenker grounds this latter claim in the examination of Beethoven's sketches for the work by Gustav Nottebohm, which, as Schenker says, "show the object from the most interesting aspect – specifically, the initial origin of the ideas."

The Erläuterunsausgabe

As Schenker had remarked as early as 1910: I can assure you that it is one of the necessities of artistic life that my views on the Ninth Symphony, which are admittedly so embattled, be heard. As I never tire of reiterating, the rescuing of the last sonatas of Beethoven is a necessary cultural act!" (WSLB 66/67, October 19, 1910).

As soon as his work on the Ninth Symphony was completed, in 1911, Schenker turned to his next major enterprise, his elucidatory edition of Beethoven's last five piano sonatas, Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111.

Instead of relying entirely on Nottebohm, Schenker now embarked on his own research, corresponding with librarians and private collectors in order to locate the autograph manuscripts and sketches of these five works and to obtain photographic copies of them — a pursuit which ultimately led to the creation of the Photogrammarchiv in Vienna. Since the autograph manuscript of Op. 106 could not be located, Schenker never completed the missing volume of the series, though he was ostensibly intending to do so even in the late 1920s. For those that he was able to examine, he made detailed notes, also annotating the score that he was using as his base text. Characteristic is his visit to the palace of the Wittgenstein family, of which he records: Inspection of the autograph manuscript of Op. 109. Completely unexpected were the most surprising insights, which confirm what I myself have maintained up to now; despite the misrepresentation of the text that a pupil taught, Nottebohm’s and Mandyczewski’s notes prove to be all too superficial and come nowhere near the heart of the matter. (OJ 1/11, p. 277: Nov 12, 1912)

Collating Op. 109 against the engraved proofs: Study of the autograph manuscript undertaken purely from the artistic point of view; on this occasion, […] new and indeed even sensational features of the content uncovered and carried over into the music text. Thus a second close examination of the music text proves in itself far deeper than the first one, full of fruitful insights, with consequences far beyond the immediate occasion. (OJ 1/12, p. 379: July 16, 1913).

Tonwille and a Performance: 1921–24

Tonwille and its precursor

During World War I, Schenker steadily developed his monograph idea into an integrated series to be called "Little Library" (Kleine Bibliothek), making proposals to several publishers. In this he planned individual studies of Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and of the Piano Sonatas Op. 27, No. 2 ("Moonlight"), Op. 53 ("Waldstein"), Op. 57 ("Appassionata"), Op. 81a ("Les Adieux"), and Op. 90 in E minor.

By 1921, the "Little Library" had become the occasional periodical Der Tonwille, in which of the above planned items those for the Fifth Symphony and Op. 57 came to fruition, alongside studies of Op. 2, No. 1, and Op. 49 No. 2. That of the Fifth Symphony became the first fully extended study, occupying seventy pages and four Urlinietafeln, and was subsequently published as a separate volume.

Beethoven Piano Sonatas: Complete Edition

During the Tonwille years, Schenker supplied Universal Edition with an edition of the complete Beethoven sonatas, the undertaking requiring an extended search for early sources, provision of a clean text free of editorial interference except for fingerings, and with explanatory footnotes. There were also plans in early 1922 for what was provisionally termed an "Urlinie-Ausgabe" of the sonatas; these seems to have been first mooted by the Director of Universal Edition, Emil Hertzka, as a way of enhancing and distinguishing the new edition. Though the Urlinie-Ausgabe would have followed on from the Erläuterungsausgabe, which had been stalled by the failure of the autograph of Opus 106 to come to light, it would have been of more limited scope; and it seems, moreover, to have drawn its inspiration from Schenker´s essay on Op. 2, No. 1, published in Der Tonwille 2 in 1922, in which graphic reductions of all four movements of the sonata fit neatly on to a single large sheet of paper. In letters to Schenker dated February 11 and 27, 1922 (OC 52/451 and 452), Hertzka suggests that each edition of the individual sonatas, and later the collected set, could include such "Urlinie-Tafeln," perhaps with a short text offering clarification. That the essay on Op. 2, No. 1 is closely connected with his work on the sonata edition can clearly be seen at the start of the text-critical commentary, which includes the clearest formulation of Schenker´s editorial creed: As little as one may say of Beethoven himself that he was merely practicing musical philology when he sought the best notation, improved slurs, etc., just as little may the work of an editor in this matter be regarded as philology. It is rather of a purely artistic nature, and demands the full interest of all those who want to make the content of the work of art truly their own. (pp. 36–37)

From the commentary on Op. 2, No. 1, we can also infer that Schenker intended his Little Library to include an analysis of each of the remaining sonatas.

Around 1920, Otto Erich Deutsch was planning a series of publications entitled "Musical Rarities: Viennese Connoisseur Prints," and Schenker was contracted to produce the first in the series, a facsimile edition with Foreword of the "Moonlight" Sonata.

A Historical Performance: 1924

To celebrate the centenary of its premiere, a re-enactment of the first performance of the Ninth Symphony in "authentic" style was given in Vienna on May 7, 1924 under the baton of Paul von Klenau. Schenker was consulted in advance, and recorded his comments in his diary for that day: Evening, the Ninth Symphony: the program book includes an explanation by Klenau: the elucidation of the historical character, invoking in particular the original tempo and original instrumentation. Sections of the Missa solemnis are played first: the Kyrie well judged at the return in tempo, the Credo good throughout. The forward motion is unmistakable: Klenau handles the choral forces with a sure touch, surer than Furtwängler. The first movement of the symphony good as to tempo, but not free enough in the second and third themes – leaves something to be desired. The second movement very good in the first section, the Trio too slow. The Adagio at the outset manifestly yielding to tradition, at all events timid: the violins still not thought through in long enough terms. Toward the end more animated and more in keeping with the original tempo. The final movement good up to the entrance of the recitative, even very good. Great success for the conductor. The program book mentions my Ninth Symphony monograph in a footnote. (Federhofer, p. 166)

The Mature Years: 1925–35

No works by Beethoven were studied in the first two volumes of Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (1925, 1926), but the third volume was given over almost entirely to a study of the "Eroica" Symphony that had initially been planned as an independent volume, possibly for publication in Germany by Breitkopf & Härtel or Peters. This is the most detailed of all Schenker's analyses, spanning 73 pages of text including forty-nine smaller-scale analytical musical examples, together with four massively extended fold-out Urlinie graphs, and serves as the ultimate exemplar of Schenker's mature critical-analytical method.

In this, the center of gravity has shifted toward the visual materials, and the text into a more supporting role. Its somewhat telegraphic style contrasts with the prefatory essay in the volume, "Rameau oder Beethoven?", Schenker’s last major polemical essay, a paeon to German musical genius and, to some extent, himself as the one who had revealed that genius to the world. In the "Eroica" essay itself, Schenker's view of Beethoven as neglected genius and as prototype for Germanity is combined with social polemic in the following statement: May the German nation learn from Beethoven to perceive and reject false greatness! When Germany has finally liberated itself from the servility in which its intellectuals continue to ensnare it, and when the infamy of contemporary music-making has disappeared, the sun of Beethoven will shine once more upon a Germany that has become aware of what it is. The days of Napoleon have gone for ever; but the days of Beethoven remain to be told. (p. 86)

Beethoven played no part in the published first volume of the Fünf Urlinie-Tafeln (1932), but two piano sonatas (A-flat, Op. 26, first-movement theme; C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, all movements) were planned for the second volume, which did not materialize. In Schenker's final work, Der freie Satz (1935), examples of Beethoven's work occupy a larger amount of space than that of any other composer; it includes examples from all nine symphonies, twenty-four of the piano sonatas, five of the string quartets, and other works.

List of Relevant Works

  • Ein Beitrag zur Ornamentik: als Einführung zu Ph. Em. Bachs Klavierwerken umfassend auch die Ornamentik Haydns, Mozarts u. Beethovens etc [A Contribution to the Study of Ornamentation as an Introduction to the Keyboard Works of C. P. E. Bach including also the Ornamentation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, etc] (Vienna: UE, [1903], 2nd edn 1908)
  • Harmonielehre [Theory of Harmony] (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger, 1906)
  • Über den Niedergang der Kompositionskunst: Eine technisch–kritische Untersuchung [The Decline of the Art of Composition: A Technical–Critical Study] [unpublished, written c. 1905–09], ed. W. M. Drabkin, Music Analysis XXIV (2005), 131–231 (German text), 33–129 (English text), 3–31 (Introduction)
  • Die Kunst des Vortrags [The Art of Performance] [unpublished, written c. 1911], ed Heribert Esser, Eng. transl. Irene Schreier Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Beethovens Neunte Sinfonie: eine Darstellung des musikalischen Inhaltes unter fortlaufender Berücksichtigung auch des Vortrages unter der Literatur [Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: A Portrayal of Its Musical Content, with Running Commentary on Performance and Secondary Literature as Well] (Vienna: UE, 1912).
  • Die letzten fünf Sonaten von Beethoven [The Last Five Sonatas of Beethoven] [= Erläuterungsausgabe [Elucidatory Edition] of Opp. 109, 110, 111, 101] (Vienna: UE, 1913–21)
  • "Beethovens V. Sinfonie" ["Beethoven's Fifth Symphony"], Der Tonwille Heft 1 (1921), 27–37; Heft 5 (1923), 10–42; Heft 6 (1923), 9–35
  • L. van Beethoven: Klaviersonaten: Nach den Autographen und Erstdrucken rekonstruiert von Heinrich Schenker [L. van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, reconstructed according to the autograph manuscripts and first editions by Heinrich Schenker] (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1921–23)
  • L. van Beethoven: Sonata op. 27, n. 2 (Der sogenannte Mondscheinsonate), mit drei Skizzenblättern des Meisters, herausgegeben in Faksimile-Reproduktion [L. van Beethoven: Sonata op. 27, No. 2 (The so-called "Moonlight" Sonata), with three sheets of sketches by the master, edited in facsimile] (Vienna: UE, 1921)
  • "Beethoven: Sonate opus 2 Nr. 1," Der Tonwille Heft 2 (1922), 25–48
  • "Beethoven: Sonate opus 57," Der Tonwille Heft 7 (1924), 3–33
  • "Rameau oder Beethoven? Erstarrung oder geistiges Leben in der Musik?" ["Rameau or Beethoven? Creeping Paralysis or Spiritual Potency in Music?"], Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, vol. III (1930), 9–24
  • "Beethovens Dritte Sinfonie zum erstenmal in ihrem wahren Inhalt dargestellt" ["Beethoven's Third Symphony: Its True Content Described for the First Time"], Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, vol. III (1930), 29–101 and graphs
  • Der freie Satz [Free Composition] (Vienna: UE, 1935)


  • Ian Bent and William Drabkin

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