What would Beethoven be without his ′followers′? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 04.03.2020
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What would Beethoven be without his 'followers'?

Beethoven is famous worldwide for his music— but where would he be without his many students, admirers and arrangers? They, too, are being honored in 2020, the year celebrating Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Ludwig van Beethoven's students and editors were to him what followers mean to a YouTube star today. They passed the word about his music, helping make it popular and making him, ultimately, famous.

The Beethoven Archive in Bonn has applied for a research project with the German Research Society aimed at digitally recording and analyzing arrangements of some of the great composer's works. Oxford University, the Bodleian Library and the Detmold-Paderborn Musicology Seminar are also involved in the project.

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Beethoven actually repeatedly redesigned his works for various performances. What is an allegedly original piece by Beethoven is often not really the original version at all.

Facsimile of the score of the 9th Symphony (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Mettelsiefen)

Beethoven constantly rewrote his own work

While today people stream music recordings digitally all over the world, music lovers in Beethoven's era could only hear his works performed in larger cities. "There were only a few concerts and no sound recordings that would have made it possible for people to get to know these works," said Christine Siegert, director of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn, adding that all the different arrangements are part of Beethoven's work because that is how they were spread throughout the world.

No followers, no Beethoven

Beethoven's composition students Ferdinand Ries and Carl Czerny were among the composer's greatest supporters. Thanks to their arrangements, larger Beethoven works were playable for smaller instrumentations, and became known to larger audiences. Czerny also published treatises on how to play Beethoven's piano sonatas, and many pianists followed his instructions.

Carl Czerny (picture-alliance/dpa)

Carl Czerny, pianist and composer

"Ferdinand Ries was a great supporter, he enabled concerts with large ensembles," Siegert said.

Ries' own songs and instrumental works are rarely played today, so Bettina Wild, Marc Froncoux and Clemens Rave from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen — a flutist, cellist and pianist respectively — set out to change that by dedicating an entire concert program to Czerny and Ries. "Very few people know there is good, light music by Czerny," said Rave. "You wouldn't necessarily associate someone like that with Beethoven." Unlike Ries, whose music echoes Beethoven's more closely, he says, for instance in the "Trio for piano, flute and cello" Opus 63, which the trio plays in its program. In the case of Ries, he adds, "you really hear he was Beethoven's student in terms of form, motif and melody."

Beethoven taught composition, but he also had piano students, including Eleonore von Breuning and the sisters Therese and Josephine Brunsvik. Beethoven is thought to have been in love with Josephine.

Josephine Brunsvik (Gemeinfrei)

Beethoven called Josephine Brunsvik his "only beloved"

The piano students may not have had the same effect on posterity as the composers and arrangers, said Christine Siegert. But they, too, helped spread Beethoven's music. "In Beethoven's time, they were enormously important because they carried his works into the salons," she says. "They were the intermediaries between Beethoven and the aristocratic families — and added to his fame."

Handel for two flutes and other oddities

Music arrangements became popular in the second half of the 18th century. "It's a phenomenon that originated in the English-speaking world, which is why we  are cooperating on research with the UK," said Siegert. It is hard to imagine, the musicologist adds, that at that time, an entire Handel opera was arranged for two flutes.

The arrangers also tackled texts, often rewriting them in order to perform secular works in a church context. They even came up with lyrics to instrumental works by Beethoven. "Lyrics were written for slow movements in sonatas and symphonies, so the audience could sing along," said Siegert.

Arrangements brought in cash

Since Beethoven had no position at court, he had to sell his works. He depended on the arrangements to get his work known by the public. Good and fast arrangers could earn a lot of money: "Some arrangers were so popular and successful that they were almost more important than the composers themselves," argues Siegert.

One of Beethoven's most important admirers and arrangers was Franz Liszt. In 1837, ten years after Beethoven's death, Liszt began to transcribe all nine symphonies for piano.

Drawing of Franz Liszt playing on a piano with a bust of Beethoven (Beethoven Archiv)

Franz Liszt, a great composer and pianist, very much admired Beethoven

These extensive arrangements go to the limit of playability — and they will all be performed by renowned piano virtuosos at the Beethovenfest in September. "These are more than just 'piano reductions,' they are 'piano scores,' simply miracles," said Nike Wagner, the Bonn Beethovenfest's director. "Liszt was also keen to make Beethoven's symphonies known, to circulate them as 'house music'," said Wagner. "These transcriptions were often the first encounter with Beethoven symphonies."

Working with Beethoven

Today, the arrangements of — or rather, confrontations with —Beethoven's work are very diverse, whether in pop music or so-called "serious music." Extracts from Beethoven's works are sampled or completely alienated, for instance. Karlheinz Stockhausen was a pioneer in this field. He electronically alienated Beethoven'sNinth Symphonyin 1970 on the occasion of the composer's 200th birthday anniversary. Stockhausen is regarded as one of Beethoven's "intellectual arrangers."

Every year, Nike Wagner awards commissions to contemporary composers with the condition that they refer to a work by Beethoven. Beginning on March 13, five commissioned works will be performed at the Beethovenfest. "Of course, Beethoven is not simply quoted or paraphrased in the new works, one hardly ever hears direct musical echoes, but one hears the characteristic style, certain sensibilities that point out a great role model," the festival's director said.

Trio of the Deutschen Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)

A program dedicated to Czerny and Ries

This year in particular, Beethoven adaptations seem to be booming. "I'm not sure whether there has ever been an anniversary of any composer where so much has been composed as is the case this year," said Siegert, director of the Beethoven Archive.

"We are happy about everyone who creatively deals with Beethoven," she said. "This is the only way for music history to live on — and that is what we all want."

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