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It would be neat to end the discussion here — with the simple conclusion that theatrical performance standards are awry; that the fact that many more people want to consume Shakespeare than Schumann has given rise among theatre directors to a loose, popularising laziness or sycophancy to the need for accessibility, which the more esoteric academy of classical music performers has wisely eschewed. There is indeed much truth in this view, and young musicians can do no better than to imbibe the categorical imperative of subordinating their own gorgeousness of tone, virtuosity and “ideas” about a given work to a deep understanding of the music, not just the performance instructions on the page but also its overall structure, grammar and harmonic logic.

A minor qualification is however necessary, although it is the exception which proves the rule. The notion that the composer’s intentions are both sacrosanct and set in stone is not infrequently belied by composers themselves. This was brought home to the writer most vividly at another master class, which like the first took place at the celebrated Easter seminars at IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall. György Kurtág was coaching a young quartet in one of his own compositions. At a certain place in the music, he stopped them and urged “No, no — here dolce.” (The story goes better in a thick Hungarian accent.) The boldest member of the quartet hesitantly said: “Maestro, we are playing from your own manuscript, and at the very point where you stopped us, you have actually written the words non dolce.” There was an interesting silence, after which Kurtág explained with a beatific smile: “Yes, yes — non dolce meaning . . . dolce.”

Beethoven himself comes closest for some people to the archetypal idea of the Romantic artist whose productions should be treated as inviolable. For the sculptor Bourdelle, Beethoven was a “Bacchus, qui pressure pour les hommes le nectaire délicieux”. But whether this metaphor was intended to be apicultural or viticultural, the facts are more prosaic. The case is well-known of the composer being prevailed upon, at the very end of his life, to write an alternative last movement for his Opus 130 string quartet. This is perhaps all the more surprising when one considers to what extent the original finale was thematically integrated into the rest of the piece.

Nor is this an isolated instance. In 1801, Beethoven took a piano sonata he had written three years earlier and rearranged it (in a different key) for string quartet. Not only are many of the notes different, but so also are movement titles, tempo markings, dynamics and slurrings, in ways which were not simply necessitated by the different instrumentation. One particular eccentricity is that there is a held chord in the piano version on which the composer has written a crescendo — an impossible effect for a pianist. Although it is easy for string players to make a crescendo on a held note, by the time Beethoven came to the same point in the string quartet, he omitted the crescendo.

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