Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

The Cramer Narrative Revisited

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

The Cramer Narrative Revisited

Article excerpt

A New Letter from Alexander Wheelock Thayer to Robert Edward Lonsdale (1868)

"I fight for no theories and cherish no prejudices; my sole point of view is the truth."1

-Alexander Wheelock Thayer

I. Introduction

"Cramer's widow communicates a pleasant anecdote. At an Augarten concert the two pianists were walking together and hearing a performance of Mozart's pianoforte Concerto in C minor (K. 491); Beethoven suddenly stood still and, directing his companion's attention to the exceedingly simple, but equally beautiful motive which is first introduced towards the end of the piece, exclaimed: 'Cramer, Cramer! we shall never be able to do anything like that!'

As the theme was repeated and wrought up to the climax, Beethoven swaying his body to and fro, marked the time and in every possible manner manifested a delight rising to enthusiasm."2

And so reads the familiar narrative that Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817-1897) published in the second volume of his monumental Ludwig van Beethovens Leben in 1872. The anecdote concerns Beethoven's association with the German-born, London-based composer, fortepianist, and publisher Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858), who arrived in Vienna in September 1799 and, according to Thayer, "at once became extremely intimate with Beethoven."3

In his article "The Cramer Anecdote about Beethoven : A Reassessment," Barry Cooper posed an intriguing question: "Where did Thayer obtain the anecdote?"4 Both Cooper and Owen Jander5 concluded (as I am sure many have) that Thayer collected the anecdote during a personal interview with Cramer's widow in London sometime in 1861 - a logical conclusion indeed, particularly given Thayer's modus operandi. "Like Dr. Burney, [Thayer] believed that intelligence as well as merchandise capable of adulteration is seldom genuine after passing through many hands, and that it is always best to seek for information at its source," Henry Edward Krehbiel recalled in 1898.

He therefore sought out all of Beethoven's friends who were living in the sixth and seventh decades of this century, noted down their recollections of important occurrences in connection with the composer, and a multitude of incidents which might enable him the better to straighten out the thread ofthat life story which had been sadly tangled by the romancers who, under one pretence or another, were first in the field with books on Beedioven . ... To hear this from the lips of witnesses who are speaking from personal knowledge is to be brought nearer to the personality of the great genius than could be done by any amount of ordinary bibliographical work.6

In light of new documentary evidence, however, perhaps there is room for an alternative (or at least an equally satisfying) answer to Cooper's query.

Writing from his consular post in Trieste on February 4, 1868, Thayer, who was then conducting research for the second volume of his projected Life of Beethoven, penned a letter to the English music dealer and publisher Robert Edward Lonsdale, requesting information about Beethoven's relationship with Cramer. Specifically, Thayer was seeking information to "either confirm or refute the assertion of a German literary Quack, that Cramer, after making Beethoven's acquaintance in Vienna [in 1799] , never afterwards used to speak well of him either as a composer or as a man!" Then, seemingly as an afterthought, Thayer continued his inquiry, writing: "Or perhaps, Mrs. Cramer the widow (if still living), might be willing to write me a line." Could this newly discovered letter (recently purchased by the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies) be in fact the origin of the famous Cramer narrative?

II. "The Diarist" and the Brothers Lonsdale

On January 29, 1861, following a three-and-a-half month residency in Paris, Thayer arrived in London in search of Beethoveniana.7 The English music critic Henry Fothergill Chorley announced his arrival in the London Athenaeum:

Mr. …

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