Uncovering mistakes in Beethoven's manuscripts

Beethoven scholar Jonathan Del Mar delves deep into the history of the composer's manuscripts to uncover the secrets hidden within...

Beethoven’s symphonies and string quartets are accepted to be the bedrock of Western classical music; so would you be shocked to learn that the printed editions of cornerstone works such as the Fifth Symphony and the Violin Concerto are littered with mistakes? For example, the famous French horn calls after the Turkish March in the 'Choral' Symphony are not quite what Beethoven wrote, while the version we’ve been handed down of his last string quartet, Op.135, is a hotchpotch compared with the great man’s original intentions. 

None of this comes as a surprise to Beethoven editor Jonathan Del Mar who, for the past 20 years, has been forensically unpicking manuscripts to discover where "real" Beethoven ends and historical distortion begins. To many, Del Mar is Beethoven’s earthly representative and his Editor-in-Chief, an awesome responsibility that he takes in his stride.

"I once did an interview in Hamburg," he chuckles, "and the journalist asked 'if Beethoven symphonies are the Bible, are you the Pope?' This sort of thing is nonsense. My editions are about making life easier for musicians. I have to admit that average concert-goers might not even notice my corrections. My editions were born out of problems such as a clarinetist putting his hand up and asking 'is that an A or a G?' Orchestral time is incredibly expensive and my work allows musicians to forget about the text and get on with the music." 

Del Mar operates out of a beautiful house in Clapham, London, that’s stuffed to the ceiling with Beethoven facsimiles and first editions. His upstairs den has an air of 221b Baker Street as he unearths the tools of his trade – paperweights, magnifiers and slim-line torches that illuminate manuscripts from underneath.

We’re looking at the facsimile of Beethoven’s autograph score for the Choral Symphony.

"There’s some weird and wonderful things here. By the time Beethoven’s copyist has produced a neat copy, the material in the French horns [Del Mar sings what’s in Beethoven’s original manuscript] has become this. You see – there are notes tied over the barline in Beethoven's manuscript, but not in the copyist’s hand." 

Next we take a look at the Fifth Symphony, and again there are shocking discrepancies between the subtleties of Beethoven’s original and the published version. "You can see clearly how Beethoven has corrected and revised what his copyist wrote, but these changes have still been overlooked."

The notation a composer deploys is distinctive, like a Picasso brushstroke. In these few bars of the Fifth, Del Mar points out just how refined Beethoven's instructions are for his strings, with regard to how they should sustain a note. Above, the wind are stabbing away with violent staccatos. Beethoven’s notation – now restored – demonstrates a dramatic clash of material more vividly than the vanilla version that has existed since the copyist’s misreading. Beethoven's Fifth becomes a better piece. 

"There’s a note I’ve corrected in the Choral Symphony that Claudio Abbado refuses to acknowledge," Del Mar reveals. "But he must accept that he’s playing a note that was changed in the 1860s, some 30 years after Beethoven’s death. Simon Rattle phoned me about the French horns in the same symphony, and asked: 'What am I going to tell the orchestra?'"

The humble copyist – the packhorse employed to copy Beethoven’s autograph score into neat – is getting bad press here. Are they the bane of Del Mar’s life? 

"I have to think myself back to the conditions under which they operated. They were working by candlelight in freezing cold conditions, probably at some ungodly hour, so it’s no surprise they made mistakes. Beethoven would get furious if they ignored his corrections. He’d scratch in the margin 'You damn fool', and I don’t blame him – he had better things to do." 

That nobody had thought to correct Beethoven’s scores before is puzzling. Del Mar explains that the realisation that all was not well with present editions grew through the 1930s. But at this time Beethoven’s manuscripts were scattered around the globe in private collections. Then the Second World War broke out and the Nazis compounded difficulties for scholars by shipping scores, owned by the German state, to Poland for safe-keeping, many of which didn’t resurface until the 1960s and 1970s. 

Del Mar inherited from his father, the British conductor Norman Del Mar, his suspicion that printed scores aren’t necessarily tablets of stone.

"My father wrote a book called Orchestral Variations in which he discusses discrepancies in modern published scores," he recalls. "He bought a facsimile of the autograph of Beethoven’s Ninth from a second-hand music shop in 1949, and that became my starting point. As my wife always complains, I have to do things to the absolute limit, so I had to investigate further. Waking up every morning knowing that I’m going to spend my day with this fabulous music is just wonderful, and I feel very honoured to be doing this fascinating work." 

Beethoven Op. 135: an unsolved case?

Despite being regarded as one of Beethoven’s most profound masterpieces, and having been recorded many times, his final string quartet is not considered "definitive", as Jonathan Del Mar explains... 

"The Op. 135 string quartet will always be a mystery because Beethoven didn’t finish his thoughts on the piece. There’s the autograph score as you would expect, but normally he’d have given this to a copyist whose responsibility was to prepare a part for each individual player and then send those parts to the publisher. 

"However, he couldn’t find a trustworthy copyist, so he wrote the parts himself. Beethoven’s mind was so fertile that in the process of copying the parts he had second thoughts.

"For example, he altered rhythms but sometimes only in one violin part – the other he would forget about. So we’re in the unique position with Op. 135 of a score that’s been superseded by a set of parts. The version that players have used since the 1860s is based on the score, and editors have ignored the parts. 

"It all works as an edition and is consistent – but it’s not the piece Beethoven intended. His mind had moved on."