From the Variations to the Symphony

As we have seen, Beethoven reached the end of the Kessler sketchbook without having completed his work on op. 34 and op. 35. Like the Kessler book, the Wielhorsky sketchbook had been already bound at Beethoven’s request, and its 174 pages were ready to be filled.127 The link between the two books is established in several ways. As Christopher Reynolds demonstrates, and as Sieghard Brandenburg independently discovered, there was a “back and forth” process between Kessler and Wielhorsky with regard to the sketches for op. 35, where Beethoven would sketch an idea in the opening pages of Wielhorsky, then transfer that idea back to a sketch he was still working on at the end of Kessler, and then finally take the idea as evolved there and transfer it back to Wielhorsky, where the sketch proceeded to completion.128 With a few exceptions like these, all of the sketches for op. 34 and 35 in Wielhorsky are at a more advanced stage than those in Kessler. Another indicator is that the first two movements of the “Kreutzer” violin sonata, op. 47, are sketched toward the end of the Wielhorsky notebook, while the Presto finale of op. 47 is fully sketched in the Kessler notebook, along with sketches for the three violin sonatas of op. 30—when Beethoven had plans to use the Presto movement as the finale for op. 30, No. 1.129 The Kessler sketches show that he changed his mind and wrote a different finale for that work, and kept the Presto in reserve until, a year later, he conceived the Kreutzer sonata for a performance with the visiting violin virtuoso George Bridgetower in May 1803.

By its contents, Nottebohm dated the Kessler sketchbook as having been begun in October 1801, and continuing until approximately May 1802. The Wielhorsky sketchbook was thus begun also about May 1802; it finishes with the sketches for Christus am Oelberge, which received its premiere on April 5, 1803, and for the first two movements of the Kreutzer sonata. Many of its early pages contain finishing sketches for the piano variations op. 34 and 35. Beethoven’s brother Karl, in a letter written to Beethoven’s publisher Hoffmeister at the end of September 1802, referred to “six or seven variations for piano, but composed in a manner like nothing yet existing” (“6 oder 7ben Variationen für Klavier, aber auf Art gemacht wie noch keine Existiren”).130 When Hoffmeister (who wanted to deal with Beethoven directly)131 did not reply, Karl offered two complete sets of variations to Hoffmeister’s rivals, Breitkopf & Härtel, in a letter dated October 18, 1802.132 From subsequent correspondence, it is clear that these are the variations subsequently published as op. 34 and op. 35.133 The two dates on Beethoven’s famous testament written at Heiligenstadt are October 6 and 10, 1802. From these facts it is easy to conclude that the Wielhorsky sketchbook accompanied Beethoven to Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven spent the summer of 1802 working chiefly on the piano variations. (Indeed, Fishman proposed that the sketchbook be called the “Heiligenstadt Sketchbook”, but the name has not been taken up by other scholars.)

While he was at Heiligenstadt in that summer of 1802, there probably occurred that most famous of incidents, described by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries:

Already in 1802 Beethoven suffered at various times from difficulty with his hearing, an evil which by itself would taper off again. He was so sensitive to the onset of his deafness that one had to be very careful not to make him aware of the defect by loud talk. If he did not understood something, he usually blamed it on absentmindedness, which to be sure was a trait he possessed to a high degree. He spent a great deal of the time in the country, where I often went to take a lesson from him. Frequently he would say after breakfast, at eight in the morning: ‘Let us go first for a little walk.’ So we would go for a walk, and often did not return until three or four o'clock, after having eaten something in some hamlet or another. On one of these outings, Beethoven gave me the first striking proof of the decline in his hearing, about which Stephan von Breuning had already spoken to me. I called his attention to a shepherd in the forest, who was playing rather well on a flute that had been fashioned out of lilac wood. Beethoven for a whole half hour could hear nothing at all, and grew extraordinarily still and scowling, even though I repeatedly assured him that I did not hear anything any longer either (which was, however, not the case) . . . .134

Although Ries’s dating of this incident in 1802 may have been retroactively influenced by the publication of the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven melancholically complains of a similar incident occurring during a walk in the woods, there should be no question that a combination of daily small reminders during the summer of 1802 brought home to Beethoven that his hearing loss would likely deteriorate until it became permanent, despite the best efforts of his Vienna doctors. This growing realization led both to the emotional outburst recorded in the Heiligenstadt Testament, and to the sheer energy which he poured into his work on the piano variations, written “truly in an entirely new manner” and completed at the same time.

It is in this context that we assess the significant evidence presented on pages 44 and 45 of the Wielhorsky sketchbook, reproduced here in both facsimile and in Fishman’s transcription. (See Plates XI-XIV.) It is late summer or early fall of 1802, and Beethoven has nearly finished his work on the piano variations op. 34 and 35, which have occupied almost all the first 43 pages of the document. Pages 34 through 43, in fact, are filled exclusively with sketches for the fugal finale of op. 35, in which the Basso del Tema is developed as a subject in its own right.

On the first line of page 44 there is jotted down a fragment of the Bagatelle, op. 33, No. 1; after it come two bars of a piece not yet identified. A blank line follows, and then on the third line appears the outline of a broad melody in E-flat major, in 4/4 time, which transitions to a quicker theme in 3/4 time, also in E-flat. A few lines further down the words “adagio C dur” are written, and above the ninth line Beethoven has written “Menuetto serioso”. The rest of page 44 and the whole of page 45 are taken up with music that is all in E-flat major and all in triple time.

If one looks closely at the left-hand margin of line III of the photographic facsimile of page 44, one can just make out, written faintly in pencil, the word “Eroica”. How this word came to be written there, and what is the significance of the sketches on these two pages, is a story which Nathan Fishman was the first to tell in full.135 I shall summarize here the salient points.

When Wilhelm von Lenz examined the sketchbook in Count Wielhorsky’s library in the late 1850’s, he made a number of brief notations in the margins of its pages. These were evidently to serve him as guides to the contents of the sketchbook when he prepared his description of it for his revised Catalog of Beethoven’s Compositions published in 1860. His examination must have been a very hasty one, however, for among other errors, he wrote the word “Eroica” in several places in the sketches for op. 34 and op. 35 (e.g., over the word “Todtenmarsch” which Beethoven wrote over the fifth variation of op. 34 on page 16). As Alexander Thayer shrewdly surmised, von Lenz had mistaken sketches for op. 35 to be sketches for the finale of op. 55.136 In his published Catalog, von Lenz accordingly reported that the sketchbook contained “an indication of the Marcia funebre from the Eroica and continual sketches for the finale”, which preceded sketches for the oratorio op. 85. He then compounded his error with those of Schindler and Ries mentioned above,137 in which they had independently asserted that Beethoven was working on the sketches for Christus am Oelberge in the summer of 1800, and concluded that since sketches for the latter follow the “Eroica” sketches at some distance in Wielhorsky, Beethoven must have started work on the Third Symphony earlier in 1800, and must have continued at work on it for five years, until 1804.138

The meaning of the word “Eroica” on page 44 is thus unclear. The sketch on line III of this page is obviously not related either to the finale or to the Marcia funebre of op. 55. If von Lenz supposed that it was a sketch for a different movement, he did not report its existence in his Catalog. He must have been uncertain, but his caution did not protect him. When Ludwig Nohl visited St. Petersburg in 1871, he subjected the sketchbook to a thorough examination and of course discovered all of von Lenz’s errors.

In his account of the sketchbook,139 Nohl ridiculed von Lenz’s identification of the sketches for op. 34 and op. 35 as sketches for op. 55, and singled out for particular obloquy the notation on page 44. He cites the first ten bars of the third line, “which is again marked ‘Eroica’ by our man with the pencil!”140 He goes on to observe that the piece sketched here cannot, by virtue of its character and the instrumental indications Beethoven has added, be a composition for the piano, “but is probably a symphony or quartet. The sketches for the Menuetto also fill page 45.”141

Nohl has overlooked an indication of Beethoven’s for a “Fag.” (bassoon) to play the melody written on the seventh line, and so the suggestion that the music might be for a quartet is unlikely. Moreover, in quoting the melody on line III, he misread for a double bar what is actually a treble clef sign, and erroneously transcribed two notes. Thus what he quotes as


Fig. 26: Wielhorsky sketchbook, tr. Nohl, p. 44, line III

is actually the following, which makes quite a difference in hearing what Beethoven intended:


Fig. 27: Wielhorsky sketchbook, tr. Fishman, p. 44, line III

Finally, Nohl assumed that Beethoven’s notation “Menuetto serioso” applied not only to line IX of page 44, but to the rest of the lines on that page and to all of page 45 as well. As is evident from an examination of Fishman’s transcription, however, the music on the tenth line is a revision of that found at the end of line III and the beginning of line IV, and has nothing to do with the sketch for the Menuetto, the sketch for which ends on the same line as it begins (line IX). (See Fishman’s transcription, Plate XIII.)

This fact has considerable significance, for if we return to line III, we find that the broad melody in 4/4 time which Nohl misquoted is in reality an introduction to a movement in 3/4 time which begins in the last measure of that line. The sketches for this movement are then interrupted by those for the Adagio in C dur and the Menuetto serioso, but are taken up again in a second draft of the movement which fills out the rest of page 44 and all of page 45. The main theme of this movement is quite obviously related to the Basso del Tema of the Prometheus-melody, which, one may recall, had just been occupying Beethoven’s mind on the pages of the sketchbook immediately preceding these:


Fig. 28: Wielhorsky sketchbook, tr. Fishman, p. 44, line X

As Fishman initially concluded, and Lewis Lockwood following him has confirmed, pages 44 and 45 of the Wielhorsky sketchbook represent Beethoven’s initial plan for a four-movement symphony in the key of E-flat major, in which the three movements sketched here were to culminate in a finale based on the work Beethoven had already done with the Prometheus theme.142


127 Douglas Johnson et al. report that there are eight separate leaves of sketches for Christus am Oelberge, op. 85 which at one time were part of the Wielhorsky sketchbook, plus a ninth leaf which has not been located (JTW 131-32). Thus as originally bound, the sketchbook would have had 192 pages.

128 Reynolds 1982, at 63-72; Brandenburg (ed.) 1978, vol. I, at 33-34.

129 Wegeler/Ries, 82-83.

130 BGA No. 103.

131 BGA No. 104.

132 BGA No. 107. The publication of the Wielhorsky sketches has allowed scholars to resolve the issue of the number of variations which Karl claims for each set in this letter. Fishman, vol. III, 72-73; Cooper 2000, at 118.

133 BGA Nos. 108, 123, 127, 128, and 133.

134 Wegeler/Ries, 98-99:“Beethoven litt nämlich schon im Jahr 1802 verschiedenemal am Gehör, allein das Übel verlor sich wieder. Die beginnende Harthörigkeit war für ihn eine so empfindliche Sache, daß man sehr behutsam sein mußte, ihn durch lauteres Sprechen diesen Mangel nicht fühlen zu lassen. Hatte er etwas nicht verstanden, so schob er es gewöhnlich auf eine Zerstreutheit, die ihm allerdings in höherem Grade eigen war. Er lebte viel auf dem Lande, wohin ich denn öfter kam, um meine Lection zu erhalten. Zuweilen sagte er dann, Morgens um acht Uhr nach dem Frühstück: “Wir wollen erst ein wenig spazieren gehen.” Wir gingen, kamen aber mehrmals erst um 3 – 4 Uhr zurück, nachdem wir auf irgendeinem Dorfe etwas gegessen hatten. Auf einer dieser Wanderungen gab Beethoven mir den ersten auffallenden Beweis der Abnahme seines Gehörs, von der mir schon Stephan von Breuning gesprochen hatte. Ich machte ihn nämlich auf einen Hirten aufmerksam, der auf einer Flöte, aus Fliederholz geschnitten, im Walde recht artig blies. Beethoven konnte eine halbe Stunde hindurch gar nichts hören, und wurde, obschon ich ihm wiederholt versicherte, auch ich höre nichts mehr, (was indeß nicht der Fall war,) außerordentlich still und finster. . . .”

135 Fishman, vol. III, 108-28. (An English translation can be found in the appendix to Haley 1966, reproduced here.)

136 Quoted supra, text at n. 90.

137 See n. 90, supra, and the details in Appendix F.

138 Lenz 1855/60, vol. III, at 222-23.

139 Nohl 1874, at 95-101.

140 Nohl 1874, at 98: “welches wieder von unserm Bleistiftmann mit ‘Eroica’ bezeichnet ist!”

141 Nohl 1874, at 99: “. . . sondern auf Symphonie oder Quartett zu schließen ist. Die Skizzen des Menuetto füllen auch noch S. 45 aus.”

142 Fishman, vol. III, 110-128; Floros 1978, 78f.; Lockwood 1981, at 460-61, repr. Lockwood 1992, at 136. It is interesting to note that in 1810, Bettina von Brentano described Beethoven’s method as follows (Letter dated July 9, 1810 to Anton Bihler, in Würz and Schimkat [eds.] 1961, 188-89): “[Beethoven] does not proceed like Kapellmeister Winter, who writes down whatever first occurs to him: he first makes a grand plan and then arranges his music into a particular form, toward which he later works.” (“Er macht’s nicht wie der Kapellmeister Winter, der hinschreibt, was ihm zuerst einfiel; er macht erst großen Plan und richtet seine Musik in eine gewisse Form, nach welcher er nachher arbeitet.”)

“Kann Hofrath Lenz Studien zu den Claviervariationen op. 35 mit denen zum Finale der Eroica verwechselt haben? Wenn nicht, dann bietet uns dieses Skizzenbuch die sehr interessante Aufklärung: daß im Frühling [1801] Beethoven das Thema aus Prometheus für Orchestervariationen ausarbeitete; daß er im Herbst seine Absicht änderte und dasselbe zu Claviervariationen benutzte; daß er es im Winter in einem Contretanze verwendte (vielleicht um es bekannter zu machen?) und endlich im Jahre 1803 zu der ursprünglichen Idee der Sinfonia Eroica zurückkehrte und die Orchestervariationen als Finale ausarbeitete, den Trauermarsch hingegen, um die Stelle des langsamen Satzes einzunehmen.” (Thayer, vol. 2, 392-93.) Here Thayer has been misled by a number of earlier errors, as I explain in more detail in Appendix F.