Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Alexander Wheelock Thayer: A New Biographical Sketch

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Alexander Wheelock Thayer: A New Biographical Sketch

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In 1901 Amy M. M. Graham, writing for the Chicago based monthly magazine Music, described Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817-1897). the revered biographer of Beethoven, as "one who has done more than any other American in the field of musical biography, and one whom all Americans should be glad to honor."1 Similarly, The [London] Musical Times, in its obituary of Thayer, concluded that he "laid the entire musical world under the deepest obligation."2 Indeed, Thayer's importance to musical scholarship is inestimable. Curiously, however, research on Thayer - particularly that which concerns his own life - has been relatively scant. Carol Ann Pemberton, writing in 1971, concluded that "Thayer deserves full biographical treatment as an American individualist, writer, critic and distinguished biographer."3 Since Pemberton s charge (now thirty years old!) only Robert Stevenson, in his pioneering article "American Musical Scholarship: Parker to Thayer,"4 has significantly contributed to Thayer s biography.

The following article is a new biographical sketch of Thayer, in which I have reconciled (and in some cases corrected) the extant biographical material and added new information, heretofore unconsidered. The primary source material for this sketch is Dwight's Journal of Music, a Paper of An and Literature, published in Boston from 1852 to 1881. Thayer began writing for Dwight's Journal of Music from its inception, and was - with the exception of the editor himself, John Sullivan Dwight (18131893) - its most prolific contributor. From Thayer's articles (and other notices), it is possible to place his whereabouts - at times even daily - during the twenty-nine year period of aie, Journal's publication and to construct a relatively detailed chronology of his life and travels.

II. Biographical Sketch

Alexander WheelockThayer was born on October 22, 1817, at South Natick, Massachusetts. 5 His father, Dr. Alexander Thayer (ca. 1785/86-1824), who, according to Alexander Wheelock, was "a physician and surgeon of great talents and skill,"6 had come to Natick in 1813 from Milfbrd, Massachusetts, and there married in 1817 Susan Bigelow (ca. 1789/90-1845). Alexander Wheelock was the eldest of three children - two sons and a daughter7 - born to this marriage.

Following a formal public school education,8 Thayer left Natick to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and subsequendy Harvard College, Cambridge. After earning anAB. in 1843, Thayer remained at Harvard, where he received an M A in 1846 and an LLB. from the Law School in 1848. From 1845 to 1847 he was assistant to Harvard's head librarian, Dr. Thaddeus William Harris (1795-1856), who, in Thayer's estimation, possessed "uncommon talents for investigation ... in all sorts of antiquarian researches .. ."9 Thayer recalled that during diis period he "devoted a world of unrewarded time, labor and money"10 researching Protestant metrical psalmody with the intention of publishing a collection of specimens of New England psalmody from 1620 to 1800; this project, however, was quickly superseded by his developing interest in the life and works of Beethoven. Harvard library charging lists from the period 1844 to 1848 confirm that Thayer, in addition to his research, read from the works of the eminent English music historians Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Sir John Hawkins(1719-1789), the Scottish writer on music George Hogarth (1783-1870), and the English music critic Henry Fodiergill Chorley (18081872).11

Many years later, in March 1857, Thayer wrote to Dwight with fond reminiscences of his Harvard days: "Then, to my country boys mind, the old College buildings were the seats of awful wisdom, and here science brooded with fostering wings - an incubation under which no egg could addle. I seemed to smell literature and science in the very air."12 The Rev. Dr. H. W. Bellows, in a letter to the Christian Inquirer dated Trieste, November 24, 1867, wrote: " [Thayer's] musical scholarship surprised and delighted me - but not more than his patriotism and his enthusiasm about his old Harvard College friends. …

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