Inauthentic Beethoven,
but Authentically So

by Leonard Slatkin
[source unknown]

In the guest conductor's dressing room at Avery Fisher Hall, three items adorn the walls. One is a part for the flute from Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. The other two are pages from the scores of "La Mer," by Debussy, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. All three bear liberal markings and alterations from two conductors who led those works with the New York Philharmonic: Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini. Visitors are reminded that not only were both gentlemen music directors of that august institution, but they also altered what composers had written, a practice much in vogue for most of the last century.

Throughout music history, from the time the standard repertory developed, performers have added their own personal touches to past masterpieces. This comes under the heading "interpretation." The conductor most identified with the practice of altering printed scores was Leopold Stokowski. But you have only to trace the performance history of Beethoven's symphonies to find all sorts of subtle as well as drastic changes. Conductors like Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Wilhelm FurtwSngler, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few, have all contributed to the reorchestration of many works by old masters.

For a concert in 1900, Mahler wrote, "Owing to an ear complaint that ultimately left him totally deaf, Beethoven lost his indispensable and intimate contact with reality and the world of physical sound." In addition, Mahler cited the changes that were occurring in his day in instruments and in the size of the orchestra.

He used the expansion of the orchestra to supplement and clarify many textures. In Beethoven's time, the string section might have had as few as six or eight first violins and perhaps a single double bass. Mahler could have 20 or more first violins and certainly would have competed with Strauss in using 10 to 12 basses. Such a body of players would have drowned out several passages in the woodwinds.

So Mahler frequently "doubled" instruments or added others to make sure that a particular figuration was heard. In the "Eroica" Symphony, for example, to a line that Beethoven had assigned to a solo flute Mahler added a second flute and an E flat clarinet.

Then there are the changes in the instruments themselves. The French horns in Beethoven's orchestral works would have been "natural" instruments. Lacking valves, they could not perform chromatic passages. Mahler, like many before and after him, simply filled in places where notes were missing. The range of most of the woodwind instruments had increased, too.

Today we have moved toward a musical ethic that considers the printed text sacred. But most composers would have welcomed the advances in the development of instruments. Mahler realized that for his own music to survive, it would have to undergo interpretation by others. Great art flourishes precisely because it can be construed in different ways by succeeding generations. Seeing those pages on the wall with the markings of Toscanini and Mahler, we are reminded that music is a constantly evolving creative process. Hearing how those pages sound, no matter what alterations have been made, reminds us of the durability of those masterpieces.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

Home / About Music