When Ludwig van Beethoven penned his manuscripts, he transformed black ink and white paper into something beyond the ordinary. In 1907, J.P. Morgan experienced this special quality when he came across one of the maestro’s original manuscripts.
Morgan had been doing business in Paris when he heard about a dealer living in Florence, Italy, who had held a concert playing from Beethoven’s original manuscript for Violin and Piano Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.
“Mr. Morgan thought that was really interesting,” Robin McClellan, assistant curator of music at The Morgan Library and Museum, told me in a phone interview about the current exhibition “Beethoven 250: Autograph Music Manuscripts by Ludwig van Beethoven.” It is viewable online and also in person, once the Morgan reopens, until Sept. 27.
Morgan quickly caught a train to Florence and showed up at the dealer’s house. The businessman sat down and paged through the manuscript, which struck him with awe.
“[The manuscript] is a way to feel close to [Beethoven],” McClellan says. Morgan bought the manuscript, and it became one of the first music manuscripts in the Morgan’s collection. It’s now being displayed in this physical and online exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
The exhibition includes 11 works overall, divided into two sections: firstly, messy musical sketches on single leaves that the maestro jotted down throughout his lifetime; secondly, full multipage manuscripts.
The exhibition allows you to connect with Beethoven, which can be a transcendental experience since his music, after all, wasn’t simply for entertainment.
Early 19th-century author, composer, and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann said of Beethoven, “His kingdom is not of this world.”
Beethoven was “viewed as being in touch with some kind of spiritual truth that’s beyond your average person,” McClellan says. Beethoven labored away and was “able to teach or transmit that truth back to your average person.”
From Chaos Comes Perfection
McClellan hadn’t studied these particular manuscripts in detail before he started working at the Morgan. But analyzing the assortment of musical ideas that sprawled across Beethoven’s leaves in the first section of the exhibition was not an easy task.
“I was struck by how messy and chaotic [the notes] are,” McClellan says. “It makes sense because they weren’t intended for public consumption. They were literally ‘notes to self.’”
But essential information was missing in Beethoven’s brainstorming notes. It’s sometimes unclear whether the notes are in a treble or bass clef, for example, or what the intended pitch is. Fortunately, McClellan is a composer himself, so he was able to competently analyze the music.
“It wasn’t like [the music] just pops off the page,” he says. “There’s a bit of detective work to try to reconstruct what he actually means here.”
But McClellan’s laborious journey with Beethoven’s works seems only fair as the maestro himself suffered through his own creative process. In contrast to Mozart, whose music is often believed to have been delivered to him fully formed, Beethoven toiled, McClellan says.
“One of the things that [Beethoven is] famous for in these sketches is how much work it took him to get to the final results and how hard and difficult that was,” McClellan says. “He was seen as this heroic figure who would venture into the realms of the spiritual and then come back and transmit these profound truths that he’d discovered.”
Through this laborious process, Beethoven would unearth a gem—a short melody or musical phrase. The most famous example is the “da-da-da-daaa da-da-da-daaa” phrase at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. He repeats that short rhythm over and over again in different iterations throughout the piece. This contrasts the practice of having one melody, then another, then another.
Beethoven’s music is typically “based on one little melody or rhythm; every part of a piece goes back to that little nugget, which unifies the music,” McClellan says. “It allows the listener to follow the mood of the music. That little nugget is like a character. Then it allows him to tell a story as that character transforms and goes through different experiences.”
Access to the Divine
Not only did Beethoven influence compositional practice, but he also brought music’s metaphysical quality into everyday life. In previous centuries, a congregation would listen together to hymns in church, sharing a collective experience. But in the 19th century, at the height of the Romantic era of music, the experience became personal, individual.
With Beethoven’s music, “as the listener, you could go into this deep inner place and have the music transmit some kind of deep truth or profound meaning to you as an individual,” McClellan says. “You don’t need all the other trappings of religion … The idea is that when you can listen to the music of Beethoven, you’ve got direct access to that divine realm.”
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.