First page of the Appassionata autograph.
An autograph score is like a conduit to the mind of the composer, and like traveling through time, it can place you at the moment of creation. As you study the symbols, shapes, and textures, the light that leaves the score and enters your eyes is the same as that which the composer saw. But the notation itself isn’t music, it’s only a representation of the music. Or as one of my undergrad professors once admonished our ear-training class: “If looking at a score doesn’t produce a sound for you, then it’s only graphic art.”
A work of visual art or not, this Beethoven autograph does not willingly offer up its secrets; it requires some deciphering. Truly, rather than music, this autograph looks something more like evidence—the aftermath of a battle fought rending sight from sound. I try to imagine what my first reaction would be if a student handed-in something like this: nearly illegible and with the time signature written as a fraction, systems missing key signatures, poor braces, missing clefs, flipped ties, and any number of other notational issues. But this was his working copy, not something meant for communicating to the world.
It’s true that this score is difficult to read, but perhaps Beethoven can be forgiven: while most can say their handwriting looks as poor, few can claim their poor handwriting sounds as beautiful.