Component parts

While researching a series of articles on the Beethoven piano-cello sonatas for Strings, I discovered that the Library of Congress lets you view the first published editions. Fascinating! I’d forgotten that until well into the nineteenth century, it was a common practice to publish instrumental parts separately, without a full score.

I suppose I’m so used to having the piano score with the cello part at the top in smaller print that even though I almost always play from cello parts in concert, the thought of not having a full score to refer to in practice sessions and rehearsals makes me slightly panicky.

It also makes me wonder how performers in Beethoven’s time studied scores. Did they flit back and forth between parts to figure out what was happening at certain key points? Did they just learn their parts then start rehearsing and stop occasionally to say “What have you got at bar such-and-such? Oh, a little cadenza. Right, I’ll wait for you…”?

Perhaps they had better memories than I do. I don’t seem to be capable of learning a new piece (or of performing an old warhorse) without spending some time reading through the full score with pencil in hand, listening to several recordings and taking notes on the interactions between parts. I’ve observed that a lot of performers my age and younger do this. Is this indicative of the increasing “Suzuki-ization” of our musical-educational culture, where we often depend on recordings as part of our learning process? Does this make us better or poorer musicians than the musicians of Beethoven’s time? Or is it simply a completely different way of thinking?

I also wonder how much performers habitually rehearsed before concerts. I remember reading in the Mozart Family Letters that the young Mozart would sometimes still be composing a piece the night before a performance, which sounds like real seat-of-the-pants stuff to me. Would they think our modern performances were absurdly, unnecessarily over-rehearsed?


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