Exercises (Beethoven-Etüden)

Ed. R. Münster. Henle/ Novello


Much new and interesting material became more generally available when in 1974 the Wiede collection of Schumann mss escaped from private hands into the public domain. The present publication offers the Beethoven variations, supposedly begun in 1831 as composition exercises for Heinrich Dorn. They were themselves further varied, often and extensively, in content as well as in order: and their intended final form, if any, is debatable. The main source here is a fair copy of seven so-called exercises. which the editor assigns, no doubt correctly, to winter 1834-5. But since his evidence is a diary entry of 1838, he ought perhaps to have adopted the title which Schumann had by then devised for his work, namely Etüden über ein Beethoven’schen Thema. And it was less than frank to withhold the composer’s very relevant comment “sehr unschöne Idee”, a thoroughly bad idea. Neither that original test nor any of the other eight pieces here printed from earlier sketchbooks was ever revised for publication; so all the background facts suggest that Henle need not fear too many infringements of the special copyright they claim for their editio princeps. Further, Schumann had at least two and perhaps three reasons for keeping these works to himself.

    First, they are obviously just exercises, more like homework than art-work, and hence largely unoriginal, e.g. in their insistence on Beethoven symphony themes (not only the ostensible subject 7/II, but odd references to 7/1, 6/II and 9/I). In pointing these out the editor might also have drawn attention to another relevant diary entry, dated April 1832: “Acht Bilder, nach den Symphonien Beethovens, Florestiana”. Secondly, the few original ideas were later thriftily used to furnish other pieces. One reappears hardly changed as Leiden op.124 no.2, while another was used in the sixth Etude Symphonique op.13. Again, in  mentioning those resemblances the editor might have thought it worthwhile to consider other less obvious but possibly significant parallels of figuration or texture, e.g. between the first of these études and the Romanze op.23 no.2. A third, admittedly more speculative reason, is that Schumann seems (to me, at least) to have deliberately embroidered what has been called a Clara-motif – here in its plainest form, (C-B-A-G#-A) – on to his Beethoven material, e.g. the first right-hand notes in the fifth étude. Such an allusion might even he expected in a manuscript boldly headed “dediés a mon amie Clara Wieck”. But the first étude (as she later certified) dates front 1831, when she was only 11; and it too has features expressive of what arguably became, or already was, an idée fixe.  Schumann may have thought the idea too readily detectable for publication. Before long, perhaps with the same reservation in mind, he took to spelling Clara’s name with an initial K.

    On any interpretation however there is clearly an excellent case for the present issue; and despite any minor cavils the editorial task has been dis­charged with exemplary diligence and competence – as we have come to expect from the Henle imprint. Unhappily another regular feature reappears, namely a substandard English version of the fore­word. I fail to see why so famous a firm cannot have a regular and reliable translator placed at its disposal – or, as this one would say, positioned at its disposition.  


The Musical Times, Jan., 1978 (p. 54) © the estate of eric sams