Musical Joke, 'Tobias,' WoO 228b, Hess 285 (mp3)
Performer: Mark S. Zimmer
This barely decipherable musical joke can be found amongst the sketches for the String Quartet in Eb major, opus 127, and probably dates from 1824. The highly melismatic character of Hess 285 (every syllable of 'Tobias' is sung to 27 notes) is reminiscent of the first and last movements of the string quartet.
Even at the best of times Beethoven's handwriting is difficult to read, but here it's pretty bad: the stems of the notes are feeble vertical lines on the paper, and where they end we have to search for the heads. It is next to impossible to determine the exact placement of the heads (at least without electron microscope), so in many cases the intended pitch may be anything within the range of a third. In short, to make a calculated guess as to what Beethoven had in mind, we have to rely also on what makes sense from the point of view of musical syntax.
The treble clef at the beginning of the stave is oddly shaped, and seems to be badly placed; hardly noticable are three flats following the treble clef. All three flats appear to be placed one line too low, an inexactness which is odd for Beethoven, who is usually rather precise about key signatures at the start of a piece, when he thinks of putting them in. All this starts to make sense when we realize that Beethoven is using not the normal treble clef here, but the so called 'French treble clef', which is placed a third lower than the treble clef we know. With this in mind, we can identify the first note as an E flat, rather than a C, which makes also more sense from a syntactical point of view.
The motif of the first bar is repeated in the next two bars in a descending sequence. This 3 bar sequence is repeated in bars 5-7 (but now starting a fourth higher) and in bars 9-11 (starting a sixth lower).
These sequences, as well as the odd voice leading in bar 4, beg the question whether a canon on the prime with a two bar interval is possible. This turns out not to be the case, for the canon breaks down in bar 6. Any suggestions for other solutions as canon are welcome!
With sincere thanks to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, which provided us with a copy of the original manuscript in Beethoven's handwriting.