An exploration of Beethoven’s expressive markings as a language of timbre

researched and written by Emmanuel Vukovich

for Prof. Judith Lochhead's seminar on Timbre at Stony Brook University

“Can you lend me Goethe's Theory of Colours for a few weeks?

It is an important work. His last things are insipid.”

— Ludwig van Beethoven, Conversation Book, 1820

The Cavatina's Timbre

Musical timbre, or tone colour - Klangfarbe, was described by the German physician and physicist Herman von Helmholtz in 1863 in his work On the Sensations of Tone as the Physiological Basis for a Theory of Music.1 Helmholtz, is best known for his research on color vision, the sensation of sound, and the perception of tone, and explored, throughout his life, the quality of tone – or timbre - in relation to colour. However, over 150 years later, despite modern advances in timbral analysis – especially with the advent of spectral analysis, no theory exists today, according to Wayne Slawson, that “is consistent with the auditory system in describing musical practice and defining a set of operations through which timbre can be adequately and objectively analyzed and discussed.”2 While timbre has played a central role in musical performance practice since at least the early Renaissance if not earlier, the task of defining a theoretical language through which to discuss, analyze, and communicate timbre continues to be an enigma for theorists, composers, and performers today. This research proposes two paths of inquiry into this dilemma.

First, through an exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colour and his lesser known Music Theory, this research proposes the possibility of an alternative understanding of a spectrum from the Classical Newtonian perspective - one based on Goethe's phenomenology of perception rather than on an abstraction of mathematical laws; and secondly, it demonstrates that timbre has always been an integral element of musical performance practice. While the study of timbre has been somewhat side stepped in music theory until recently, it has always been critical in performance practice. Building on an extensive manuscript study of Beethoven’s String Quartets by Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo String Quartet at New England Conservatory of Music, this research proposes that Beethoven, over the course of his life, developed a highly nuanced and sophisticated language of expressive markings in his compositional process. Though they have never been published, these markings play a decisive and critical role in communicating the specific timbral qualities and aims in the performance practice of his music to performers.

The aim of this research is to examine the facsimile manuscripts of Beethoven's oeuvre informed by Nicholas Kitchen’s analysis and to interpret Beethoven’s expressive markings as a language of performance indications for timbre and tone colour. It will attempt to describe these timbral expressive markings through the lens of Goethe’s Theory of Colour and Music Theory. In doing so it hopes to identify and articulate a language for timbral analysis and performance practice for the music of Beethoven and potentially for many composers who followed after him.

Complete paper & presentation

1 H. von Helmholtz, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage fu¨r die Theorie der Musik (Braunschweig: J. Vieweg, 1863), trans. A. Ellis as On the Sensations of Tone (London: Longmans, Green, 1885), p. 24n. Ellis translated Klangfarbe as “quality of tone.”

2 Wayne, Slawson, The Color of Sound: A Theoretical Study in Musical Timbre, Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 132-141 4