That Chopin variants can be exasperating to an editor – who has to do everything possible to provide the musician with one valid text – is well enough known. The idea that we are not alone in our exasperation can, however, be comforting. This in any case happened to me when I began to prepare a revised edition (HN 1334) of the 1st Scherzo in b minor. I came across a document by the famous Chopin pupil and editor Karol Mikuli that shows considerable perplexity.
Towards the end of the 1870s Mikuli prepared his Chopin edition, still widespread today, for the Kistner publishing house. Mikuli was “close” to the Master, and hence many corrections and pointers presumably influenced his edition at firsthand. Mikuli, despite this closeness, obviously could not decide at many spots what the correct reading should then be. In his indecision he evidently turned to contemporary witnesses who had themselves heard Chopin’s playing and could perhaps recall the correct versions. These kinds of inquiries to Auguste Franchomme and Ferdinand Hiller are in any case documented.
To Hiller he writes on 22 August 1879: “The old original editions are full of divergent readings, in which the autographs that we have cannot shed enough light since they obviously contain writing errors (and that really often). […] The only hope remaining for us: To call on his loyal old friend who so often heard the things by him, who indeed saw them being composed. […] Esteemed Lord and Master, let us hear your ultimate, correct word in the matter. A few strokes on the enclosed leaf will suffice, and we shall be happy to owe the important task’s solution to you.”
Mikuli appended music examples with specific questions for Hiller to annotate and return to him. One of the most interesting spots there is a section from the Scherzo in b minor, measures 43–57:
Mikuli wanted to know whether or not there ought to be a tie at the spots marked A, B, and C. Hiller recorded his ideas in the example, setting at A, however, ties at the wrong place and correcting himself at C. In order to avoid any misunderstandings, he adds to Mikuli’s question standing below the sentence, so that it now reads: “A tie between both b’s belongs to spots A, B | none at C.”
That sounds like real firmness. The wrong and/or corrected entries in the music example indicate, however, that Hiller was not at all certain in the matter. This is not surprising since his acquaintance with Chopin went back, after all, more than 40 years.
But where does the uncertainty of Hiller’s and Mikuli’s – as well as, incidentally, that of most pianists of our day for it is a famous “Chopin spot” – come from? The root of the problem lies, as so often, in the sources. An autograph has not come down to us, merely three first editions (Paris: Schlesinger; Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel; London: Wessel), of which the German and English were repeatedly corrected and reprinted. The Paris edition littered with errors must rule out here a proofreading by Chopin; yet it presumably goes directly back to the lost autograph. The Leipzig and London editions were based on the French first edition – they did not pass through Chopin’s hands.
The prints mentioned reproduce the above-cited spot in all conceivable variants. Making matters worse, the tied passage is notated in all the prints five times (with minor differences), owing to the scherzo’s structural repeats. And no edition reproduces it the same way in all five spots.
Since it is tiresome to go into all the details here (please take a look at the critical report in the forthcoming edition), I’m giving below only statistical trends: The French first edition engraves only a few ties, the English first edition going along with it in this respect. The German first edition, on the other hand, puts ties at nearly all the spots. A later issue, though, deletes them again. So as to make the confusion total, almost all the ties were added in a later issue of the English first edition. What was going on?
We can only speculate.
Scenario 1). Originally, the autograph consistently put ties that Chopin inconsistently canceled in revision (or the autograph was already inconsistent in this respect from the start). So, for the most part the French and English first editions do not engrave any ties. The German first edition was reviewed by an editor who added ties, analogously.
Scenario 2) The autograph contained ties that were initially engraved in the French first edition. Breitkopf & Härtel obtained a galley proof from Schlesinger and engraved the ties, accordingly. Chopin, during revision in the interim, had the ties deleted again in the Schlesinger edition, whereupon Wessel obtained as model from Schlesinger an inconsistently corrected galley proof. Against this scenario might be that in a revision for Schlesinger Chopin would presumably have also eliminated the numerous other engraving errors. Furthermore, no traces of plate corrections are recognizable in Schlesinger’s print.
The changes in the later issues of the German and English first editions probably came about as a result of the fact that the publishing houses attempted to align their prints with the parallel European editions. In the process they resorted in each case to various models. The confusion continues merrily in the later editions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Incidentally, in his edition Mikuli actually follows the recommendations from Hiller’s written reply.
For our edition I have decided to view the French first edition as definitive. I’m assuming that the few ties notated there at spots in question remained inadvertently and that Chopin wanted to hear all parallel spots the same, with the re-struck octave b. But I’m not certain. Chopin’s last word about the spot is, alas, nowhere extant, and only the lost autograph could shed light in the dark – better, in any case, than Hiller’s recollections.