7. What if there is an error in the score?

The History of a single measure in the Trauermusik of Wagner

In Essay Nr. 2, I explained the fact that there is no music in the score, only symbols of the actual music. But, at the same time we were all trained as conductors to believe that the score is the true representative of the composer and that we must analyze every single chord, etc. Over and above this, we have inherited since the late Middle Ages a music notational system which for the first time in history made music something for the eye, not the ear.

Given this academic perspective we were all made to feel that the score was something sacred and not open to question, what happens when in rehearsal, or in one’s study, one finds an apparent error in the score? Due to our training we automatically feel we must perform the “mistake.” But, if we have strong musical instincts, our ear cries out, “This cannot be!”

There is such a problem which is well-known to all band conductors, in a lovely piece of music, Trauermusik, by Wagner, based on the music of Weber’s opera, Euranthe. In the opera, Euranthe’s lover has abandoned her and, believing she is responsible, she has decided to kill herself. The Wagner score begins with a beautiful passage of very nostalgic music and then the mood brightens moving toward a strong climax as she also recalls a high point in the former relationship. In the measure before this climax Wagner increases the strength of the movement by adding to the crescendo a doubling of the rhythmic texture by adding eighth-notes after each beat. And now we are prepared for a very strong climax on the downbeat of measure 23. But, instead, on this downbeat we see in the score not a forte, which we have been caused to anticipate, but instead “pp”!

This creates an almost impossible rehearsal problem. If taken literally, the pp must be understood to be subito and if so performed takes on a quality of almost musical humor, something completely out of context with the emotions of the music to this point. Obviously, it is also very difficult for the performers to make a great crescendo that goes to the bar line and then abruptly becomes pp. I think most conductors assume some mistake in the publication and I have only ever known one who believed this is what Wagner intended.

Trauermusik by Richard Wagner, corrected performance edition by David Whitwell

I have performed this beautiful music many times and on each occasion in my review of the music I came to this measure and simply stopped, stood back and tried to imagine what Wagner had in mind. A few years ago I had been invited to guest conduct this music and one night beforehand I had a dream in which I was standing by a table, looking at this measure 23 in my score and once again wondering what Wagner could have possibly meant. At this moment, in the dream, a cloaked figure came out from behind a stage curtain and told me that this was a mistake and that the downbeat should be the expected strong climax! I asked, “Did Wagner tell you this?” The figure replied, “Yes,” and departed back behind the curtain.

This experience, beyond pondering the impossibility of receiving an indirect message from Wagner, led me to become determined to find out what the history of the notation of this measure entailed. The first performance of Euranthe was given in Vienna in 1825 and immediately after the autograph score was returned to Weber’s family who locked it in an iron trunk where it remained for more than 150 years unseen until after WWII. I wrote to an acquaintance in the National Library in Berlin to request a photocopy of the measures in question. Being very busy, as all such library folk are, rather than take the time to find the passage they simply sent me a digital copy of the entire autograph opera score! And there, in all the moving melodic voices in measure 23 there was a large modern accent sign on the down beat resulting in the very kind of strong down beat which one would expect!

In order to help the reader understand the apparent reason for this correct version being lost, I must review for the reader an early practice in early operatic conducting. During the Classical Period it was the custom for opera to be conducted from the keyboard, not from a podium. But the music rack of the typical cembalo or harpsichord of the day was so fragile it could not support a large manuscript score, so a copyist had to make a “performance score” for the keyboard/conductor consisting of basically a condensed score to be used in performance. As an example, I once saw in an exhibit at La Scala in Milano an autograph score of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro on which on the top of the first page was written, in Mozart’s hand, “Conductor score.” So here is proof that although Mozart wrote the music in the first place and still owned the original autograph score, he conducted from this condensed score. This because the autograph score of the Marriage of Figaro consists of three large volumes, anyone of which would have crashed the music rack, not to mention the practical fact that having a condensed score to work from eliminated many page turns were the original scores used.

I have visited several opera libraries in Europe where these condensed scores are still preserved from earlier performances. The one in question, the autograph copyist score for Euranthe in the opera library in Dresden, was lost in the great Dresden fire in WWII, but it is a very good bet, in my opinion, that if it existed we would find the mistake in this measure to be one made by the copyist and not Weber. I believe this answer is confirmed in the fact that these accents are also missing in Wagner’s first draft of his Trauermusik, for he was most likely basing it on the only surviving copy available to him, the copyist score, as he had no access to, and undoubtedly had never seen, the autograph score locked in the family’s iron trunk. Wagner, a later assistant conductor at the opera in Dresden, would have also used the copyist score for his own performances of the opera, as the copyist score was the only score available.

By the way, the pp in measure 23 is still present in Weber’s autograph score because it meant not “very soft” but “very slow,” which was also understood by pp at the time and which the reader can confirm in a good Italian/English dictionary. In this case, there was the need for more time for the listener to calm down after the great climax in measure 23 in order to be prepared for the following music. Now Euranthe is walking on a path in the woods, looking for a possible place to be buried. She sees a nice clearing in the forest, points to it and sings “and over there” which is represented in the Trauermusik as a trumpet solo, which should be performed as anything but its appearance as a fanfare fragment. And in the same style after the following measures when she sings “a place for me.”