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Wassup With Dedications?


Dedication rescinded

What do composers mean with dedications to their scores? Compare the situation when an author adds a dedicatory page right after the title page of his book, as in Melville’s dedication of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, thus: “In token of my admiration for his genius this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” One great writer to another.

Beethoven and Chopin peppered their piano compositions with dedications, chiefly to persons of the nobility or at least locally noteworthy, many of whom sponsored them financially. Many composers have dedicated their compositions to their own students: Mozart and his piano concertos, Beethoven and several sonatas, Chopin his Scherzo no. 3 to Adolf Gutmann (whose strength was such that he “could knock a hole in the table”, according to Huneker, who pointed to a big chord in bar 6).

A surprising number of composers offered dedications to their fellow composers, and this in itself is revealing. Beethoven dedicated his three piano sonatas, op. 2, to Haydn, his friend who to an extent was also his teacher. Schubert, at the very end of his life, dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Johann Nepomuk Hummel; but by the time these were published, in 1839, eleven years after Schubert’s death, Hummel himself had been dead for two years. Schubert’s composed his Sonata for piano four hands, D 812 (“Grand Duo”) in 1824, though not until 1837 did it see publication, and then with the publisher Diabelli’s dedication to the 18-year-old pianist Clara Wieck, three years before she married Schumann. Possibly Schubert, could he have but known, would have approved of this. Ravel dedicated his Jeux d’eau and String Quartet, mature masterpieces, to his “cher maître” Gabriel Fauré while still a student at the Conservatoire. Debussy dedicated his own “First String Quartet [there was never another] in G minor, op. 10 [his only opus number]” to Ernest Chausson, who had nominated him for membership in the Société nationale, and as a man of means may have helped him financially as well. Alban Berg, who worshiped his teacher Schoenberg, dedicated three of his largest compositions to him; but he dedicated Wozzeck to Alma Mahler, who paid for the engraving of the piano score. Another connection with Alma Mahler was an expression of love and grief: Berg’s last work, the Violin Concerto, was dedicated “to the memory of an angel,” her daughter Manon Gropius, who died of polio at age 19.

A great trio of pianist-composers, almost identical in age, honored each other: Chopin dedicated his first (op. 10, published 1833) set of twelve Etudes to Franz Liszt (and the second set of twelve, op. 25, published 1837, to Liszt’s mistress, but one doesn’t know what to read into that). Liszt did not, as far as we know, reciprocate to Chopin. But Liszt did dedicate his great Sonata to Schumann, who had previously dedicated his Phantasie, op. 17 (published 1839), to Liszt. Schumann was enraptured by Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, op. 23 (published 1836), which Chopin had dedicated to the Baron Stockhausen; Chopin, learning of Schumann’s admiration, dedicated his next Ballade, in F major (op. 38, published 1840) to Schumann, and there is no significance in the fact that Schumann might not have been as impressed by the new Ballade. In any case Schumann had already dedicated his Kreisleriana (op. 16, published 1838) to Chopin, who, according to at least one source, showed no interest in it. In all these instances we are dealing with some of the best music ever composed for the piano.

Probably the most famous of all musical dedications is that of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, Sinfonia eroica […] “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” originally intended for Napoleon Bonaparte, but re-inscribed to His Most Serene Highness Prince Lobkowitz after Beethoven scratched out the original dedication in disgust. (You can still see the hole in the paper.) Everybody knows that story, even better than the flowery and very formal but failed dedication of Bach’s Six “Brandenburg” Concertos (failed because, as far as we know, the Margrave of Brandenburg ignored it entirely). Beethoven’s original dedication was probably motivated by an idealistic desire to bestow honor; the second dedication may have had some of that as well, but more likely was intended, like Bach’s, to curry favor. The pretty legend, asserted by his biographer Forkel, that Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations originated as an anodyne for Count Keyserlingk in his sleepless nights is not ratified by either internal evidence or a dedication, but Bach supposedly did receive the gift of a goblet full of gold pieces from a grateful client.

Some of the most revealing dedications originate with love. Was Antonie Brentano the genuine “immortal beloved” of Beethoven? The topic is still controversial, and the indirect evidence is persuasive; but Beethoven did dedicate a monumental work to her, the Diabelli Variations, op. 120. Wagner didn’t need to dedicate his Five Songs on poems of Mathilde Wesendonk; his love for her radiates through the music itself, but there’s something to Ernest Newman’s remark that Wagner didn’t compose Tristan und Isolde because he was in love with Mathilde, but rather the other way around. Debussy’s inscription of Children’s Corner, “to my darling Chouchou, with tender excuses for all that will follow,” shows how fatherhood enchanted the composer; his daughter was then three years old.

Among the eccentrics,  one dedication stands out, like the work to which it is attached: the Opus Clavicembalisticum by Kaikhosru Sorabji (1930). This is a long work (252 printed pages, mostly without barlines) for solo piano, in twelve movements, lasting more than three hours — some say five hours — and is written on never less than three staves at a time (up to five). It is said that the first recording of it by a single pianist required eight years and 40 subventions. The dedication reads thus: “To my two friends (E duobus unum): / HUGH M’DIARMID / and / C. M. GRIEVE / likewise / to the everlasting glory of those few / MEN / blessed and sanctified in the / curses and execrations of those / MANY / whose praise is eternal damnation / June MCMXXX”. The name Grieve is that of the Scottish nationalist poet who used the pseudonym McDiarmid. What this dedication reveals, like the score itself, is that Sorabji (1892-1988) was a composer who thought very highly of himself and his work.

A different dedication, by a major eccentric, is that of Erik Satie’s Prélude de la Porte héroïque du ciel, composed for a play by Jules Bois. “Je me dédie cette oeuvre. E.S.” (I dedicate this work to myself.) The score is two pages, without any barlines.                                                                                             

An afterthought, of uncertain significance: Hans Werner Henze, composer of many operas, dedicated Der Prinz von Homburg (1958) to his fellow composer Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky attended a performance, but walked out.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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  1. Fascinating piece regarding dedications. The Bach Brandenburg bit may well have come about through a misunderstanding of the Prince’s personal situation. The Prince was the Great Elector’s youngest son by his second marriage and had been bought out of his inheritance by his half-brother King Frederick I so his financial means were probably limited. His small household staff were hired on the basis of their musical abilities I have read, so after work was done the Prince and his staff would have a hot session of music. The Brandenburg Concerti were sadly clearly beyond the Prince’s performing capacity. Someone has probably researched this better; if I had gone into Music History this would have been the sort of thing I would have had to do for a living! I too once tried to listen to some Hans Werner Henze–I got a recording out from the Belmont Library of his Fuenf Sinfonien (five symphonies). I didn’t get very far but I did get an idea of what his music was like which explains why I described a modern opera done hereabouts a few years ago as sounding like “warmed over Hans Werner Henze”. Henze did do a fair amount of doctrinaire warmed-over Marxism–the sort of thing that made his music a period piece of Post-WW2 German music. (But I DO want to see Der Junge Lord to see what it’s like and whether they use a real ape!) Stravinski himself outgrew radical Modernism as he got older. I have read Kleist’s play “The Prince of Homburg” in English–it’s a great play and great theater–but for political and cultural reasons no one does it straight; I looked up Henze’s “Prince” and it’s a typical Marxist re-warping of the original.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — June 3, 2020 at 8:18 pm

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