Ludwig van Beethoven rather startlingly reared his stern visage in the 21st century when Heather Carbo — librarian at the Austen K. deBlois Library of Palmer Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia — found an 80-page working manuscript score for a duet-piano version of Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuge in B flat major when cleaning out an obscure archival cabinet one sultry afternoon in July.
“It was just sitting on that shelf,” Ms. Carbo told the NY Times. “I was just in a state of shock … I’d heard oral history about a Beethoven manuscript, so I recognized what I had found immediately,” she said. Carbo had been nearing the end of a huge inventory project when she came across the bound booklet in the very last cabinet she inspected in the basement of the library.
Dr. Jeffrey Kallberg at the University of Pennsylvania authenticated the manuscript, as did Dr. Stephen Roe, head of Sotheby’s Manuscript department, who said, “This is an amazing find. The manuscript was only known from a brief description in a catalog in 1890 and it has never before been seen or described by Beethoven scholars. Its rediscovery will allow a complete reassessment of this extraordinary music.” It will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London December 1, 2005, and is expected to bring up to $2.6 million.
Dr. Wallace Smith, president of Palmer Theological Seminary, said, “I was both thrilled and overjoyed when I heard about the rediscovery of this wonderful manuscript, a true original by an artist for the ages.” The Beethoven manuscript — as were original music manuscripts by Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, Meyerbeer and Spohr discovered at the Seminary in 1990 — was part of a collection presented to the Seminary in 1950 by Margaret Treat Doane, daughter of Cincinnati industrialist and hymn-writer William Howard Doane, who had likely purchased the Beethoven work at a Berlin auction in 1890.
The original version of Grosse Fuge was composed as the finale for the String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, which Beethoven began in May 1825 and completed in September that year. It has an extraordinarily modern sound and was notoriously difficult for performers and listeners alike when it was first played in 1826. The composer died in 1827.
The four-hand piano manuscript is written in brown and black ink, sometimes over pencil and includes later annotations in pencil and red crayon, some added as proof corrections, on ten-stave paper – the staves frequently extended into the margins by the composer.
Written on various types of paper, the manuscript shows, according to Sotheby’s Roe, the “extent of Beethoven’s working and reworking and includes deletions, corrections, deep erasures (occasionally the paper is rubbed right through, leaving small holes), smudged alterations and several pages pasted over the original or affixed with sealing-wax.” The intensity of the composer can be seen graphically: the higher and more intense the music, the larger the notes.
It is also appears that Beethoven tried passages out on the piano himself. On page 23 of the manuscript, there is notation for Beethoven’s own fingering. Roe finds it “touching to imagine the ailing and entirely deaf composer running over passages on the piano, music he could scarcely hear.”
The manuscript was on view briefly this afternoon at Palmer Theological Seminary, and will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from November 16th-19th and Sotheby’s London on November 28th, 29th, 30th and December 1st.
There was a similarly serendipitous Bach manuscript discovery in Germany in May.