IS THIS Beethoven’s last work for piano? The Sydney musicologist Peter McCallum believes it is.
The 32 bars of handwritten musical notation caught his eye when he was studying the composer’s last sketchbook in Berlin a couple of years ago. But it has required some detective work to determine what the great composer – whose handwriting was famously chaotic – intended.
“I didn’t know it was a piano piece until I actually sat down and tried to write it out,” says McCallum. “Beethoven almost never used clefs or key signatures so you have to think about it … but once you do crack the code it’s clear.”
McCallum, who is associate professor in musicology at the University of Sydney and the Herald’s classical music critic, believes the piece was written about October 1826, just a few months before the composer died in March 1827.
“Beethoven always jotted down ideas, it was almost compulsive,” he says. “The amount of paper he covered in the last three years of his life was quite amazing. There are a lot of little ideas that crop up that don’t go anywhere. But this was more than a little idea. It actually has a right hand and a left hand and it’s got phrasing marks and staccato marks in a few places. So it’s quite clear it was a complete piece.”
Now the pianist Stephanie McCallum has used her husband’s transcription to make the first recording of the piece. Bagatelle in F minor is just 54 seconds long and is the final piece on her CD Fur Elise, Bagatelles For Piano By Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Although most of Beethoven’s sketchbooks have been studied in detail, the final sketchbook – housed in Berlin’s State Library – has attracted little attention.
Although his later works are often seen as spiritual, the fragment has a different quality, says Peter McCallum. “It’s slightly melancholy. But it’s a pleasant little thing and it’s quite easy to play. What I like about it is that a child could enjoy playing it. We could give Fur Elise a rest for a while.”