The Beethoven Sketchbooks -- History, Reconstruction, Inventory, by Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson, and Robert Winter. Edited by Douglas Johnson. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 611 pp. $75. The interest inherent in anything touching on the life and work of Beethoven shows no sign of weakening in Western culture. As with the John Kennedy assasination or the lore of Rasputin and the Romanovs, the appetites of scholars and public seem insatiable.
The working habits of a genius always arouse curiosity, and the compilers of this monograph make the point that Beethoven was apparently as assiduous in holding on to his musical sketches and drafts as most other composers are about leaving nothing behind except their finished products. Until recently, though, little has been possible in terms of studying the many evolutionary stages of quartets, sonatas, symphonies. Beginning with the initial posthumous auction of Beethoven's possessions in 1827, a diaspora began that left the contents of his musical working papers scattered over the whole of Europe, including Russia. Leaves from the sketchbooks were pulled out by some owners as gifts to friends; various rebindings occurred, which masked such removals; and the ravages of war played their part in further upheaval.
The musicologist authors have spent over a dozen years in numerous countries, tracking down and examining all the available material that came from Beethoven's rough musical notations. The essential purpose of their sleuthing (extending to the dating of watermarked sheets and their analysis by beta-radiographs) is: ``to reconstruct the condition of each sketchbook at the time that it was used by Beethoven.''
What it hasn't been possible to do, of course, is to actually reassemble all of the nomadic pages, gatherings, and folios from their often pridefully protective latter-day curators. What they have accomplished is a sort of musicological Michelin guide to the artist's notebooks.
The book's utility will be borne out only by those who undertake their own research through the library vaults of Berlin, Vienna, Krakow, London, and so on. Beethoven's scrawls remain a token, for all time, of that fabled compound -- inspiration and perspiration. And for those who fancy the pleasures of the chase in mild forms such as autographic whodunits, this reference book communicates some of the savour in tracking the tantalizing remnants of a unique struggle and victory, both artistic and personal.