Tackling Beethoven's hopeless case
Maya Plisetskaya during a performance in her honour on stage at the Kremlin palace in 2005. In the 1960s she set her heart on dancing the role of Carmen, and her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, adapted Bizet's work to make this possible. photograph: yuri kadobnov/afp/ getty images
Pianist Finghin Collins, who performed Beethoven at the weekend. photograph: yuri kadobnov/afp/ getty images
Publishing deals have been a part of the music industry for centuries: just ask Beethoven
Composers are like everyone else. They can be as venal, mercenary, greedy or cheating as the next person. Let’s begin with Muzio Clementi. No, not because of the way he exploited Irish wunderkind John Field to demonstrate the pianos that he sold, but because of his dealings as a music publisher with Beethoven.
Clementi visited Vienna in 1807, and a letter he wrote back to his business partner in London on April 22nd gives a flavour of his approach. “By a little management and without committing myself, I have at last made a compleat conquest of that haughty beauty, Beethoven, who first began at public places to grin and coquet with me, which of course I took care not to discourage; then slid into familiar chat, till meeting him by chance one day in the street – ‘Where do you lodge?’ says he; ‘I have not seen you this long while’ – upon which I gave him my address. Two days after I found on my table his card brought by himself, from the maid’s description of his lovely form. This will do, thought I. Three days after that he calls again, and finds me at home. Conceive then the mutual ecstasy of such a meeting! I took pretty good care to improve it to our house’s advantage.”
In fairness, his deal with Beethoven was anything but mean. The great man was to receive the substantial amount of £200 for three quartets (the Rasumovsky Quartets), a symphony (the Fourth), an overture (Coriolan), a piano concerto (the Fourth), and his only violin concerto, and was also to produce a new version of that work as a piano concerto avec des notes additionelles, as the contract drawn up in French put it. Clementi was buying the rights for “British Dominions” only. Beethoven could sell the rights separately in France and Germany, and expressed the hope that the sales would enable him “to achieve the dignity of a true artist while still young”.
The style of the solo writing in the violin concerto was never going to be easily adapted for the piano. A lot of it is spare and high-lying, the material as basic as you could imagine, but, in the hands of Beethoven, it produces music that is astonishingly profound. The piano in its higher register has no way of easily emulating the sustaining power of the violin.
Yet, in spite of what he clearly regarded as the generous deal with Clementi, Beethoven seems to have taken the minimum of trouble in attempting to preserve the character of the original in rewriting the solo violin part for piano. It’s been speculated that he didn’t even bother to do it himself, and may have farmed it out as a piece of hackwork.