On preparing a Beethoven marathon Part 8: Julian Jacobson

In today’s post, concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson discusses the importance of the Beethoven edition as he prepares for his marathon, which takes place on Novemebr 12th at St. John’s Church in Waterloo, London. Find out more about this concert, here.

    On Beethoven editions…

This week’s blog is on the vexed topic of editions, a subject about which people (not least editors themselves) can get very hot under the collar. I am by no means an expert and cheerfully admit that there are some famous editions that I do not possess and haven’t looked at much if at all, including Arrau and Schenker. Still, I do have about twelve editions, some of which have become intimate companions in my Beethoven explorations.

The earliest one I have is not strictly speaking an “edition” at all: Tecla Editions have published reprints of all the first editions. So you get exactly what you would have got as a Beethoven fan in 1800 by walking to the nearest music shop in Vienna and parting with a few Gulden. As well as being beautiful objects in themselves, it’s fun using them to create one’s own Urtext. But there remain many inconsistencies, not only obvious misprints, and of course one needs a modern scholarly edition or two.

The buzzword is Urtext, and no self-respecting student would now play from a non-Urtext edition. The trouble is that Urtext editions are not created equal and at a certain point one needs to examine them with a more critical eye. The standard Urtext edition is Henle, but even here one must distinguish between the old and new Henle. The old one tended to add dynamics, especially sfs, in brackets on analogy with passages elsewhere in the same movement, often wrongly or at least questionably. But it is well laid out and the fingering is logical and systematic – some would say formulaic. The newer Henle has ironed out some of the old excrescences, but the fingering by Murray Perahia, great pianist as he is, is individual to the point of eccentricity.

Barry Cooper’s edition for ABRSM has been much admired and with good reason as he goes exhaustively into the sources and has come up with many new, or restored, readings – not all of which I agree with. The newest Urtext edition is Jonathan Del Mar’s for Bärenreiter: Jonathan already had a fine track record with his editions of the Cello Sonatas and the Symphonies, and it may fairly be said that his edition represents the very most up to date scholarship, further correcting old errors and fine-tuning slurs and dynamics. However it has no fingering apart from Beethoven’s own (which is often remarkably eccentric) : Jonathan claims that fingering is already editing, since it imposes a certain hand position, and hence touch and articulation, on the pianist which we may decide is not what Beethoven would have wanted at all.

Ideally, then, one would use just Bärenreiter and put in one’s own fingering throughout (as Debussy wished the pianist to do for his Etudes). But that’s a tall order for anyone who isn’t a very experienced Beethoven player. So I recommend a combination of the old Henle for clear and logical fingerings and a generally reliable text with the new Bärenreiter for completely up-to-the-minute textual accuracy, with exhaustive (occasionally exhausting) notes on any uncertainties that remain.

But what of the famous old pre-Urtext editions? Are we going to throw out the baby with the bath water just because the old editors, including some of the greatest musicians of their time, were not always scrupulous in showing what was genuine Beethoven and what was their idea of what Beethoven should have written or meant to write? These editions have been unfairly discredited since Urtext editions became widely available, and I propose that the time has come for them to be rehabilitated. Pride of place, and never quite out of fashion, goes to the Artur Schnabel edition, eccentric in its metronome marks and fingerings but inspirational in its analysis and advice on expression. The old ABRSM edition of Tovey and Craxton still has its adherents: for me it’s spoilt by the addition of long slurs to indicate phrasing (rather than legato), many of which seem quite arbitrary. There is an edition by Paul Dukas, of all people, which is worth looking at. The once famous edition of Hans von Bülow is now largely discredited on account of his meddling with the text, but there are such valuable insights to be gained from the commentaries.

Lastly I have been getting huge inspiration and many ideas from the 1918 edition of Alfredo Casella. I’m glad to see that this is now available on IMSLP, and it’s still possible to pick up hard copies if one hunts around. Casella was a scrupulous editor, though he shows his historical period by adding many legato slurs, with an Italian’s instinct for cantabile, and a few extra notes. But there is so much feeling for style and expression in his textual notes and even in some of the “inauthentic” markings and adaptations. After all, a literal performance of even the purest Urtext is a dead performance, if it’s even possible: as soon as one starts to play one is interpreting and in that sense “editing” Beethoven’s text. And Casella’s fingerings are genius, often providing me with solutions that no other edition offers. So for me the ideal formula is three editions: Bärenreiter for complete textual fidelity – even if I disagree with a few details! – the old Henle for its clarity and  logical, usable fingering, and Casella for inspiration, brilliant fingering solutions, extremely helpful pedalling marks, and an indefinable but powerful sense of the greatness and poetry of the music itself.



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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