Editing a Beethoven work solely on the basis of a first print greatly challenges every editor of a scholarly edition. The composition’s music text is then available for the edition only in a more or less error-prone state. If the autograph is extant, and present are perhaps still other manuscript sources – for example, the engraver’s models for the first print, proofread by the composer himself, – then the goal of a secure music text is clearly a step closer. But, alas, the situation for Beethoven’s piano sonatas is unfortunately not especially rosy.

Here is an informative table that I would like to discuss further below:

Listed chronologically by genesis in this table are all Beethoven’s extant piano sonatas and sonatinas.

  1. It is wonderful to see here that with Beethoven the system of opus numbers is not a watertight chronological series. For, first of all, the sonatas op. 2, numbered today as the 1st to 3rd sonatas, are not the first Beethoven sonatas extant – which are the so-called Electoral Sonatas, composed over 10 years earlier. And, on the other hand, sonatas nos. 19 and 20 op. 49 (!) are actually assumed to have been composed much earlier, that is, between sonatas op. 10 and 13.
  2. Furthermore, but this is certainly no surprise, the unfinished sonata in E-flat major Unv 13 suggests that especially in the first 30 years of his life, Beethoven probably composed other works in this genre that are lost today (thanks to the extensive inventory of sketches, his creative activity from 1800 is much more comprehensively documented).
  3. The relative “confusion” of the genesis of the sonatas in the five years between 1794 and 1799 indicates less structured, focused work than in subsequent years. This assumption is supported by the fact that from mid-1798 Beethoven first began to work in bound sketchbooks and hence in a more organised manner – extant from the prior period is simply unbound sketch material.
  4. Additional information beyond the table: All but one of the completed compositions listed were also published during Beethoven’s lifetime, mostly under his supervising eyes. Only the little Sonatina WoO 50, a gift of friendship, first appeared posthumously.

So, what now is the status of the extant important manuscript sources, the autographs and proofread copies?

The source situation can be divided in this respect into three genesis periods.

  1. Up to the turn of the 19th century: For sonatas composed before 1800, we have neither autographs nor proofread copies (with the exception of the Sonatina WoO 50, whose autograph remained with the gift’s recipient, Beethoven’s close childhood friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler). There are probably various reasons for this. On the one hand, Beethoven obviously submitted his autographs to his publishers as engraver’s models. Proofread copies were therefore unnecessary, so they were not even produced. And since Beethoven had still not achieved his fame of later years, his autographs were treated less carefully. They got lost in the publishing houses, especially when these firms ceased operations. For an Urtext edition, this means that we are dealing here with only one source for the edition – the first print. In a few cases, Beethoven had printed compositions that were particularly erroneous reprinted in other publishing houses (e.g., op. 31); in other cases, there exist prints that were corrected by the original publisher (e.g., op. 2). But this can hardly compensate for the loss of the manuscripts.
  2. From 1800 up to about 1806: Beethoven’s hard-to-decipher handwriting, his tendency, even in manuscripts intended for the publishing house, to correct heavily, more and more confronted publishers with unresolvable problems. Therefore, Beethoven was soon expected to submit copies by professional copyists, from which the music text could be engraved in the publishing house. The composer did not always comply with this wish, even in later years. But in the case of the Sonata op. 22 dating from 1800, singularly extant for the first time is an engraver’s model of a sonata that is a proofread copy. In other cases, for instance, with the Sonatas op. 26 and 27 no. 2, for which autographs were found in Beethoven’s estate, we can assume that here also copies went to the publishing house. To produce these copies, Beethoven preferred to engage a first-class copyist, Wenzel Schlemmer, and his copying workshop. Schlemmer, like none other, was able to decipher Beethoven’s handwriting. First autographs have now also been archived in the publishing houses for posterity, thus those for op. 28 and 53. But to be lamented continuously for the other sonatas is the bitter loss of manuscript sources.
  3. Around 1806 to 1820: As of Sonata op. 57 we have a complete run of autographs – with the really devastating exception of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which abounds in music-text problems, insoluble without any manuscript sources. But in the other cases we are all the more pleased when, for various reasons, Beethoven’s manuscripts have been handled more carefully. Here, a significant private collection plays a decisive role: from 1808/1809 Beethoven was in close contact with Archduke Rudolph, who paid him an annual salary and took lessons from him. Rudolph revered Beethoven as a composer and obviously made it his business to include all of his works, if possible, in manuscripts in his music collection. We are indebted to this collector’s desire for the existence of several important copies and for the autograph of the 1st movement of the “Les Adieux” Sonata, dedicated like many other works to Rudolph. (Perhaps, the autograph of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which was also dedicated to him, was found in this collection before it got lost.) So it is these later sonatas that provide a larger fund of sources for the editor, a pleasure, though not unclouded: From 1807 Beethoven made plans to publish his works parallel in several publishing houses, such as those in Vienna, Berlin, London and Paris. Consequently, in the case of the three late sonatas op. 109, 110 and 111, for example, he prepared several autographs, of the entire sonata or of individual movements. The chronology of these sources, including their dependence on each other, is sometimes very obscure, and the music text in these manuscripts is, of course, not congruent. Oh well …
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