Was Beethoven the creator of masterpieces defined by a strict text or musical blueprint? New research into his creativity shows that Beethoven explored a range of artistic options, and as a tireless improviser he was hardly ever completely satisfied by a finished work. The evidence of Beethoven’s creative process is preserved in nearly 8,000 pages of sketchbooks. More than a century ago, the pioneering researcher Gustav Nottebohm surveyed these manuscripts, making striking individual observations. Only relatively recently, however, has research pushed well beyond Nottebohm’s tentative efforts.
The publications of the Beethoven Sketchbook Series from the University of Illinois Press have advanced into this unknown territory. Each of these editions of major sketchbooks contains a color facsimile of the original source reproduced at full size, together with an interpretative transcription and extensive commentary. Since the facsimiles provide access to the visually fascinating but cluttered and highly revised manuscripts, the transcriptions can inquire into the meaning and not just the letter of Beethoven’s inspiring brainstorms of activity. The accompanying commentaries place this new material into the context of parallel sources and biographical issues, recreating for the reader the composer’s creative struggles.
These new editions can be compared to the first probes of Venus or Mars, since instead of isolated glimpses, the entire surface of the object of investigation is revealed for the first time. The first such edition targeted Beethoven’s major sketchbook of 1820, Artaria 195: Beethoven’s Sketchbook for the Missa solemnis and the Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109. The editor, transcriber, and author of the commentary is William Kinderman, general editor of the Beethoven Sketchbook Series.
The second edition of the Beethoven Sketchbook Series makes available the most famous of the composer’s sketchbooks, the “Eroica” Sketchbook used by Beethoven between 1802 and 1804. Startling new insights are revealed in this edition, which was completed jointly by Lewis Lockwood and Alan Gosman. Fresh insight is offered into the genesis of not only the “Eroica” Symphony, but the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the composer’s sole opera Fidelio, and various fascinating unknown and fragmentary projects. Lockwood and Gosman’s edition, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Sketchbook: A Critical Edition, will be published in early 2013.
Recent research has moved beyond Beethoven and beyond music. Kinderman’s new book from the University of Illinois Press, The Creative Process in Music from Mozart to Kurtág, explores the creativity of major composers from the eighteenth century to the present. He shows that a view of the arts confined to isolated canonic masterpieces is seriously impoverished. At the same time, many secrets about and fresh perspectives on deceptively familiar canonic works can be gained through research that sees cultural products as a struggle emerging out of history. This approach, dubbed “genetic criticism” in France, is a fruitful alternative to the rigid structuralism that so easily blinds commentators to the important spontaneous aspects of artistic activity. A recent interdisciplinary exploration of this approach is Kinderman’s edited book with Joseph E. Jones, Genetic Criticism and the Creative Process: Essays from Music, Literature, and Theater from the University of Rochester Press.
Kinderman has recorded as pianist Beethoven’s major keyboard works from the period of the Artaria 195 sketchbook: the final trilogy of Sonatas in E major, A-flat major, and C minor, opp. 109-111 (available on Arietta Records). For the second movement of the Sonata in E major, op. 109, an innovative website allows the user to explore all stages in Beethoven’s creation of the music, tracing the process from initial sketch to finished work, acorn to oak. The facsimiles of the sketches, transcriptions of their content, and realization in sound of the music are coordinated, drawing on the material from the three-volume edition of Artaria 195.
Another much-praised recording by Kinderman of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is also available on Arietta Records. Kinderman’s book Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations from Oxford University Press and his CD recording of this work were a major influence on Moises Kaufman’s much-performed play, 33 Variations.