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First movement of unfinished Beethoven trio reconstructed by scholar

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


William Kinderman
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
William Kinderman, professor of musicology, has reconstructed the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Trio in F minor from disconnected fragments contained in sketchbooks and loose leaves of paper spread across two continents.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — These days, when William Kinderman’s colleagues pass the musicologist in the halls of the Music Building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, they’re likely to catch him humming a new tune.

The music was written nearly two centuries ago – by Beethoven.

The unfinished, unknown work had been languishing in obscurity; it existed only as disconnected fragments contained in sketchbooks and loose leaves of paper spread across two continents.

As a result of Kinderman’s scholarship and diligence, the parts have been reunited to reconstruct the first movement of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in F minor.

“This is one of the most intriguing examples of a composition that has remained almost completely unknown,” Kinderman said. “It’s been something of a legendary piece.”

In reconstructing the first movement, the scholar focused his attention on the Scheide Sketchbook, a bound volume of the composer’s original sketches, currently in a private collection in Princeton, N.J., and on a draft contained in the Grasnick 29 manuscript at the Staatsbibliothek preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin.

Apart from a few specialists who’ve known that Beethoven worked on a piano trio in 1816 – the same period during which he composed his Sonata in A Major, Op. 101, which Kinderman calls “a pivotal work in Beethoven’s creative development” – the composition’s existence has been undocumented.

“Ninety-nine percent of musicians will know nothing about it,” he said.

That is expected to change, though, with the publication of Kinderman’s recent study in the current edition of the Journal of Musicological Research.

Titled “Beethoven’s Unfinished Piano Trio in F Minor from 1816: A Study of Its Genesis and Significance,” the journal article is supplemented by an online recording – PC or Apple – featuring the “torso” of the first movement.

A torso, Kinderman explained, is “a chunk of a larger entity.”

“The first movement of the trio has a substantial slow introduction, and following these proportions, the entire opening movement if completed might have been perhaps 10-12 minutes long,” he said. “The part that can be performed is about three minutes in length and includes the entire introductory section.

“This coherent chunk of the piece can be performed without being highly speculative of what was meant.”

Kinderman said he believes Beethoven intended for the finished work to be presented in three, or possibly, four movements. But, Kinderman added, “the source materials extant for other movements are much more limited.”

Had Beethoven completed and published the work, Kinderman said it “undoubtedly would have become one of Beethoven’s major works of chamber music.” That prediction, he said, is based on the following observations:

“Although the amount of extant material is limited, the breadth of the existing fragment of the first movement is impressive. There isn’t any other piano trio, or scarcely any other chamber music work by Beethoven, that features this kind of slow introduction. The music begins seemingly out of nothing, with just a low, soft rumbling in the piano, before a theme unfolds in long, even notes in the violin and cello. Then, very gradually, the music becomes more energetic, agitated, and dramatic.”

“At the end of the introductory passage,” he noted, “the music is fully scored like a finished composition. The ensuing music is in a faster tempo featuring a sharply profiled main theme and is shaped in a sonata form design, but Beethoven would certainly have expanded and elaborated that section. It is especially the slow introduction that allows one to say this is indeed a piece planned on a very large scale and in a highly original manner.”

So why didn’t Beethoven finish the F minor Trio?

A couple of scenarios are possible, Kinderman said, speculating that the most likely factor was the composer’s recent appointment as the official guardian of his nephew Karl.

“This is a period in which a number of projects were abandoned – more than normal for Beethoven,” he said. “My sense is that he was adjusting to life as a parent – for the first time, and as a single parent at that. I imagine this was distracting and engrossing and had an impact on his work. Beethoven, who was an absent-minded bachelor, did not find it easy to be a parent of a 10-year-old.”

And while other scholars have dismissed the period during which the composer drafted his plans for the trio as one of the composer’s more unproductive, Kinderman maintains a different view.

“The pieces he finished in 1816 were very innovative,” he said. “They include his song cycle ‘To the Distant Beloved,’ a landmark piece in the history of song, and the Opus 101 piano sonata that is one of his finest and most challenging.”

Furthermore, Kinderman said, Beethoven’s surviving manuscripts indicate that the composer already was working out parts of what became perhaps his best-known composition – the Ninth Symphony – around the time he labored on the trio and soon after he abandoned that project.

“My take is that Beethoven was able to do extremely impressive work at the time, but that life circumstances intervened and there were sacrifices. It all seems very human.”

Kinderman’s other Beethoven projects include a book, “The String Quartets of Beethoven,” just published by the University of Illinois, and his ongoing editorship of the Beethoven Sketchbook Series with the U. of I. Press, which began with his three-volume edition of the “Artaria 195” sketchbook, published in 2003.