A unique manuscript by Ludwig van Beethoven that was lost for more than a century was sold at auction today (Nov. 30) for £1.13 million ($1.95 million) to an anonymous buyer.
“It is not a record, but it is an excellent price,” said a spokesperson for Sotheby’s, noting that the record price for a Beethoven manuscript, of £2.13 million ($3.68 million), was set by the composer’s Ninth Symphony in May 2003.
Discovered in July at the bottom of a dusty filing cabinet at a religious school in Philadelphia, the manuscript sold today is a work in progress for the Grosse Fuge in B flat major — one of Beethoven’s most revolutionary works.
Not only is the 80-page document a working manuscript for the only piano version of a major work by Beethoven, it is one of his few compositions for a piano duet. Sotheby’s said it was the most important Beethoven manuscript to have come to market in living memory and would prompt a complete reassessment of the German composer’s works.
It is the second time very rare musical documents have been found by chance at the former Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary — now renamed the Palmer Theological Seminary. A Mozart manuscript was discovered there in 1990.
Beethoven, who continued to work as he went slowly deaf, wrote the work in 1826 — one year before his death — as the finale for his String Quartet in B flat major. The piece is notoriously difficult to perform and, because it was musically far ahead of its time, did not immediately sit well with audiences either.
The manuscript is written in brown and black ink and includes annotations in pencil and red crayon. Music scholars have welcomed it as breath of fresh air, clearly illustrating the working methods and thought processes of a musical genius.
The document contains multiple deletions and corrections and has places where the paper is rubbed through as Beethoven continuously tried and rejected different variations.
Because it is so obviously a working document, it is not easy to read and has no printer’s marks. Sotheby’s said it was clear this was not the finished version and as such would give deep insight when compared with the published work.
The manuscript was last at auction in 1890 — first in Paris in May of that year and then again in Berlin in October, from where it is believed it was taken to the United States and lost to view until July of this year.
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