Beethoven on the Block

Article excerpt

LONDON, ENGLAND-The English travel writer Richard Ford returned from a visit to Vienna in 1817 with more than just postcards and memories. Ford managed to visit the great Ludwig van Beethoven and left the meeting with a 23-measure string quartet. Ford wrote the following on the manuscript: "This quartette was composed for me in my presence by Ludwig v. Beethoven at Vienna Friday 28th November 1817 Richard Ford."

Ford's manuscript souvenir was auctioned on December 8, 1999, at Sotheby's in London for 166,500 ($273,440), a new auction record for a single-page manuscript by the composer. The manuscript was purchased by a Swiss manuscript museum, the Martin Bodmer Foundation.

"The appearance of a new work by Beethoven at auction is almost certainly without precedent in modern times," said Dr. Stephen Roe, head of Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts department and the discoverer of the manuscript. Roe came upon it while evaluating a collection of autographs and manuscripts owned by the Molesworth St. Aubyn family at Pencarrow in Cornwall. The manuscript, written in Beethoven's mature hand, had languished among the papers for more than 100 years.

The family's collection was launched in the 1850s by Richard Ford's wife, Mary, who collected autographs. Richard Ford was a well-known writer and art historian who is credited with bringing the Spanish painter Velazquez to the attention of the English. He was at the start of his career when he visited Beethoven. The present-day Molesworth St. Aubyn family members knew they had a Beethoven autograph somewhere in the collection, but they were unaware that it included an original piece of music.

It's likely that the 23-bar piece was never played before the Eroica String Quartet performed it at Sotheby's in October 1999. Marked "Allegretto" and written in the key of B minor (an unusual key for Beethoven), the quartet begins with solo first violin, which is then joined gradually by the other voices in a contrapuntal but not quite fugal style. The piece is a 52-second tantalizing taste of what might have been and foreshadows the style of the late quartets. On the same day Beethoven wrote this brief piece, he also completed a Fugue in D Major for String Quintet for his friend Karl Holz, published in 1827 as Op. 137.

The Eroica was only allowed to rehearse the piece on the day of the performance. …