Original Beethoven

Michael White’s column in yesterday’s New York Times touches on a heap of issues about which I care a lot. What counts as the true version of a Beethoven sonata? On what basis do we form such judgments? What do we make of divergent rival accounts of “the real Beethoven”? When Barry Cooper suggests that “[w]hen a text is corrupted, it places a barrier between the composer and listener that shouldn’t be there. You’re not hearing a Beethoven sonata but a Beethoven sonata adapted by someone else,” he piques my “What Is An Author?” interest.
“[T]he difference between an error and a correction or improvement is not always clear, so you can end up with five or more variants of the same text with no conclusive proof of which one represents finality.” Exactly — maybe the question of which is final or original frames the problem poorly.
My favorite part of the article comes on the second (digital) page: “ ‘Everyone,’ [Cooper] said, ‘knows what a double bar is’ — the two perpendicular lines that conclude a section of the score — ‘but there’s no literature on double bars, nothing to tell you what they signify to the player.’ ” First of all, I don’t know what a double bar is (at least not in the way Cooper does). Second, I cherish the juxtaposition of Cooper’s asseveration that everybody knows with the Times’s explanation of the sign, which implies that they think some of their readers would not know.

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