Beethoven composition discovered in Greenwich

on Sonntag, 20 Dezember 2015. Posted in General Autograph News

By Robert Marchant

Brendan Ryan noticed it right away.

A professional appraiser, he recently visited the home of a Greenwich woman who was looking to sell some belongings, when his eyes lit on a yellowing sheet of music behind glass, stippled with notes.
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A photograph in an auction book of the old Beethoven score that belonged to a Greenwich resident.

More than just a musical composition, the sheet was ferociously dotted with German words, directions and symbols that practically flew off the page with manic intensity.

“When I saw it, I knew what it was. I’d seen his handwriting before,” said Ryan, who works for Butterscotch Auction Gallery in Bedford, N.Y.

A musician himself, Ryan had been obsessed with Ludwig van Beethoven as a younger man. Standing in the Greenwich home on a late summer afternoon, he was all but certain the music he was looking at had been penned by the great composer.

“I’ve been in a lot of homes and seen hundreds of things, but this will be one of the most memorable moments of my career,” he said.

He managed to keep his professional composure while perusing the possessions of the Greenwich woman, whose identity is not being disclosed by the auction house, until he was outside.

“I called my wife when I got into my car, I think I was bouncing off the walls,” said Ryan.

The sheet music went from being a curio in a Greenwich home to a $100,000 windfall when it sold at auction last month. For music scholars, it’s become an exciting addition to the Beethoven canon. 

But before all that could happen, some detective work needed to be carried out. Was it really a sheet of Beethoven composition that graced a Greenwich home for decades, and if so, to which work did it belong? 

“The woman who owned it knew it was valuable — but how valuable? That’s our job, to see what people have. It’s like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ ” Ryan said, referring to the PBS television program.

Ryan called his old musical mentor and professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Carmelo Comberiati. As a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, Comberiati had studied old Beethoven manuscripts.

He was able to come up with the exact work, written in 1810, to which the sheet music in question was connected. The page came from the sketchbook the composer used for brainstorming.

“Beethoven would write out his ideas. With most composers, we just have the final product — they threw the rest out. Beethoven didn’t throw anything out,” Comberiati said, “I found the sketchbook, and referenced the exact piece, we put it all together.”

The sheet of paper was quite revealing of Beethoven, his thought process and his stormy personality, the professor said.

“We can see the fire as it happened. He just went wild with a crescendo of activity,” Comberiati said. “There’s so much impatience there — I can’t imagine working for the guy. But that aspect of his character is wonderful.”

Another detail that confirmed the sheet work’s authenticity were three small holes on the side of the paper. The holes match up exactly with known samples from the sketchbook in Bonn, Germany. Beethoven threaded pages of the sketchbook together himself with a needle and some twine.

The sketchbook had some 30 pages of lined paper in it, and it was with this pad that Beethoven, age 40, began work on “King Stephen.” It was a rush job — done in two weeks — to write incidental music for a ceremonial theater piece honoring the founder of Hungary, tied to the opening of a new concert hall in that nation’s capital city. Beethoven was at a spa in 1810 when he wrote the work.

It’s unclear what happened to the sketchbook after Beethoven’s death in 1827. At some point, it was broken up and cut into pieces and sold in portions to admirers. A few snippets have turned up in fragmentary form.

“Having a complete sheet is rare, and so heavily and densely worked on is even more rare,” Ryan said, “They don’t come up often.”

Evidently, a leading German antiques dealer agreed, placing a winning bid of $100,000 on Nov. 15, plus another $20,000 for the buyer’s premium. It substantially exceeded estimates.

“She’s very happy,” Ryan said of the Greenwich owner of the piece.

An expert on historical musical manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Jeffrey Kallberg, said it was an important and exciting discovery.

“Beethoven manuscripts turn up on the auction market with some regularity, but usually they’re known manuscripts. What makes this particularly interesting is this hadn’t garnered any notice — it’s been in this private collection,” said Kallberg, who viewed the piece on-line from his office in Philadelphia. “It’s a new manuscript, or a page from a manuscript, so that’s pretty exciting.”

It also captures quintessential Beethoven.

“He was famous for his sketching, and he sketched copiously. And it’s the archetypical looking Beethoven sketch — he had God-awful handwriting, he was working fast, it has the look of a messy genius.”

Kallberg hopes the sheet ends up in a state archive or library in Germany, where it could be made accessible to scholars and Beethoven lovers.

“It’s quite exciting when these things turn up,” the music professor said. “It’s cool that it was sitting in Greenwich all this time. Who knew?”

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