B5- The parts

After 100 years with pretty much only one option, conductors now have many choices of what edition of the Beethoven symphonies to use. So what parts have my colleageus been looking at, and what scores have I been? Why?

The Edition-

In Lancashire they actually used the “old” Breitkopf edition. I hadn’t used that edition in several years, having done my last several performances and the 2005 RCICW using the Barenreiter edition by Jonathan Del Mar. It is always worth using the best sources one can find, but I would caution conductors against taking Barenreiter’s marketing hyperbole to heart– the old edition is still perfectly useable, and although Del Mar’s edition is exceptionally well-researched and beautifully typeset, there are plenty of editorial decisions that are just that- editorial decisions. Some of the “new” discoveries that we’ve heard so much about  are actually more alternate readings the Del Mar has chosen from among many different possibilities in the original sources. Since Beethoven never left us a “definitive” source that expressed his complete and final wishes, you can’t call Del Mar’s parts an Urtext so much as a Critical Edition.

For the SMP performance, we are using the “other” Critical Edition, the “new” Breitkopf edition that has been prepared by Clive Brown (Peter Hauschild edited some of the other symphonies in the edition) and released in 1996. I remembered reading about this edition a few years back and being a bit baffled at why it had received almost no discussion in the press. While record companies are quick to trumpet that this or that new set was recorded using the Del Mar, and critics have raved about the “fresh” insights of performances using Del Mar, I’ve heard very little about Brown’s edition.

I couldn’t help but ask myself “what’s wrong?” with Brown, so I ordered the score, and the answer seems to be that there is nothing at all wrong with it. It is beautifully researched, with contentious points carefully discussed. There is a shortened version of the critical report in German in the back, and a separate book in English (and German) called “A New Appraisal of the Sources of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” is available, which has a wonderfully detailed and lucid comparison of all the available sources. I’m so glad we have the chance to use Brown’s parts this week (in spite of a few dodgy page turns), and if I remain as happy as I am now, I think I’m going to by a set for myself. It isn’t as beautifully typeset as the Barenreiter, but I feel more comfortable with some of what is in it.In any case, I would really recommend that even if you love the Del Mar, it is worth it for any conductor to get the score of Brown and compare the two. You may find that some of the changes from the “old’ edition to Del Mar are not present in Brown, and that he has strong reasons for keeping the old readings. There is also a Norton Critical Score with some interesting articles and examples of the sketches.

As it happens, I’ve asked Dr. Brown if he will do an interview for Vftp discussing what he thinks young conductors need to know about performing materials, scholarship and performance practice, as I think that would be tremendously useful for my students who read the blog (and for me as well). This will involve threading the needle between his many publication deadlines, so keep your fingers crossed. Meanwhile, I’d encourage conducting students to find a copy of his “Classical and Romantic Performance Practice: 1750-1900.”

So many of the reviews I read of performances using the “new” edition show real confusion about what is new and what isn’t. Neither Del Mar’s nor Brown’s edition forces us to “re-think Beethoven’s metronome markings,” which is something I’ve heard many, many times. Yes,  there are editorial recommendations that, for instance, we consider the possibility that the 6/8 March in the last movement of the 9th was supposed to be dotted-half= 84 rather than dotted quarter=84, but otherwise, the metronome markings have been there for years. Likewise, some of the famous “retouches” that conductors have used over the years, such as replacing the bassoons in bar 303 of the 1st mvt of the 5th with horns were never in the “old” edition. One only has to look at this film of Toscanini in 1952 (not quite at 108, but not slow) to realize that conductors have always been aware of LvB’s metronome marks, it is simply that some ignore them.

Also, one can distort, change or ignore the text in Del Mar or Brown just as easily as one can in the “old’ edition. My former-teacher David Zinman got a lot of press for being the first conductor to record the symphonies using Del Mar, but he gleefully told us in our seminar class at Aspen that his  set of parts “didn’t look much like Del Mar’s edition. My parts are so marked up, they look like a fucking Mahler symphony.” One of these days, when I’m feeling brave or career-suicidal, I might do a post just comparing how “faithful” or accurate the readings of different conductors’ Beethoven symphonies are, complete with audio samples. It might surprise readers to find that there are just almost certainly as many demonstrable sins against the text in HIP-ish recordings like like Norrington and Zinman as there are in Karajan or Furtwangler, just different ones…. Harnoncourt recently did the piece (brilliantly) with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and added two bars of rests in the first movement ! Beethoven’s intentions are prety clear in the old edition, in spite of the mistakes- it was just as much a question then as now how closely the conductor wants to adhere to those intentions. And I’d rather hear Harnoncourt or Furtwangler break the rules than a lesser musician following them.

Brown’s New Appraisal ends with a note of rational humilty that the Barenreiter marketing office would never tolerate

“These new findings do not significantly affect the masterpiece that has been the admiration of scholars and music-lovers alike for nearly two centuries: a little extra brass and timpani in the first movement, some additional dynamic markings, modified slurring and notation of note beams, etc… may seem to be of minor importance…”

The true value of both new additions is not in correcting the evils of the old one, but in giving the interpreter far more tools for understanding how the score one is studying came to be: what is in it and why. In that sense, they are really only of significant value if you subject the various editorial decisions to careful scrutiny, rather than accepting the printed page as divine revelation.

Anyway, one can do a HIP or Old School performance of a Beethoven symphony using any of the editions. I have no interest in doing either.

For me, the HIP aesthetic offers a lot to think about, but it is basically a tired and simplistic 25 year-old approach. Today’s musicians need to look just as critically at the assumptions of the 80’s generation as they did at the assumptions of the 60’s generation. I’m not convinced that conductors in London in the 80’s were channeling LvB any more than any of their predecessors- they weren’t content to regurgitate existing performing styles, and we shouldn’t be either.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “B5- The parts”

  1. Rob Archibald

    I love your blog, just subscribed yesterday, but I subscribe to > 100 RSS feeds. If I have to click through to your website every time I want to read the content past the little “teaser” that your feed gives me, chances are I won’t do it very often, cuz it takes too long. I’d love to keep reading what you have to say if you’ll make it easier though. Just change your feed to include the whole post.

    Rob Archibald
    Founder, Portland Mormon Choir & Orchestra
    Musical Director, Intel Singers & Intel Orchestra

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