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In My Good Books

Playing for Beethoven

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
19 November 2005

Just as we sometimes value an artist's sketches more than his finished paintings, or at least we recognise in them something not to be found elsewhere, so it is that we have high hopes when we come across a document that remains undoctored, imperfect and seemingly artless but still truthful and fresh.

The pianist and composer Ferdinand Ries, who was taught piano by Beethoven, was modest about his memoir of the master: "The plainness of style will, I hope, be graciously overlooked, since hitherto I have communicated with the public only through musical compositions ... I shall relate the events as they occur to me; should the reader be of a mind to do so, he will find it easy enough to put them in order." On the next page we find Beethoven in bed writing out last-minute trombone parts for an oratorio, and we are hooked. As Schumann said of this volume: "One cannot stop reading it."

And it goes by very fast. Ries's actual memoir is no more than 50 pages long, but it is the source of many important stories. It was Ries who first told Beethoven that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, upon which Beethoven went into a rage and shouted, "So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man. Now he will trample all human rights under foot, and only pander to his own ambition; he will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!" Then Beethoven went to the table on which lay the full score of a symphony he had dedicated to Napoleon; he "took hold of the title page at the top, ripped it all the way through, and flung it to the floor. The first page was written anew and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica."

Ries describes the moment he realised that Beethoven was going deaf. He often went walking with his teacher in the countryside. One day he called Beethoven's attention "to a shepherd in the forest who was playing most pleasantly on a flute cut from lilac wood. For half an hour Beethoven could not hear anything at all and became extremely quiet and gloomy, even though I repeatedly assured him that I did not hear anything either (which was, however, not the case)." The specific detail that the flute is cut from lilac wood (is this possible? how would Ries know?) adds to the bucolic character of the sad scene. But it is just this kind of detail that tends to get dropped in the retelling.

Unlike the memoir I mentioned last week, which sheds more light on Beethoven the man than the musician, Ries conveys important information about the music. He tells us for instance that when he is in London preparing the Hammerklavier Sonata for publication, he receives an instruction from Beethoven to insert two notes at the beginning of the adagio, making a new opening bar. At first he is tempted to believe that Beethoven has gone daft, as had been rumoured at the time. The great work had been completed and revised six months before. How could he now be adding more notes? And yet he was amazed at the effect this insertion made (it is indeed simple, radical and very beautiful) and he advises every music lover to try the opening of the adagio both with and without the new measure, to see what effect is made.

The book I am talking about is called Beethoven Remembered, the Biographical Notes of Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries. It was first published in English only in 1987, a lateness which surprised Christopher Hogwood, who provided a short foreword. (Both the American and the English edition seem hard to find, except on the internet.) Wegeler's half is a little less interesting than Ries's, lacking the degree of intimacy Ries enjoyed with Beethoven until he made his terrible mistake.

Beethoven had composed what became know as the Andante favori, and played it to Ries and a friend, who liked it so much they pestered him to repeat it. On the way home, Ries passed the house of Prince Lichnowsky, and dropped in to tell him about the marvellous new composition. The prince begged to hear it, and Ries repeated what he could remember.

The next day, as a joke, the prince told Beethoven he too had composed something, and he sat down and played a part of the new Andante. Beethoven was furious, and thereafter, despite the prince's pleas, would never play again in Ries's presence, and demanded his pupil leave the room before he would perform. It is a bitter lesson, and Ries takes it bitterly, though his devotion to Beethoven's genius remains unimpaired.

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Beethoven Remembered, the Biographical Notes of Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers, 1987.


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