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Reconstruction of Beethoven's library


One of the responsibilities of the Beethoven-Haus is to study, publish and explain the original documents on Beethoven's life and work. Biographical and composition-related studies always contain questions concerning Beethoven's mind and the mindset of his environment. What influences was he exposed to? How did he educate himself? What principles and rules of thumb did he follow? In order to study Beethoven's intellectual interests, all books and music supplies the composer read, studied, copied, extracted, put to music, owned, borrowed and lent, gave away or planned to buy need to be identified. A long list would be the result, because information on Beethoven is not only present in the bequest files and his diary but also in letters, conversation booklets, on notepads, in sketch books, studies and handwritten sheet music. Additionally, the memories of his contemporaries giving evidence of Beethoven's use of books and sheet music must be included. However, even Beethoven's core belongings, his own books and music sheet collection, are only known in parts.

Today, a bit more than 20 books and sheet music editions from Beethoven's library remain. Most of them were part of the bequest given to Beethoven's biographer Anton Schindler. At the end of the 19th century they were transferred to the Berlin State library. After Beethoven's death Schindler had taken care of the items. Besides a number of markings, some books also contain handwritten side remarks by Beethoven. Schindler additionally indicated the source on the items "Aus Beethovens Nachlass" (From Beethoven's bequest) and "L. van Beethoven". The Beethoven-Haus obtained parts of a music magazine containing Beethoven's squibs, a book with singing instructions that Schindler had taken from Beethoven's bequest and a book on music theory that, according to the previous owner, Beethoven supposedly had given to Johann Nepomuk Hummel. A psalm booklet featuring the name "L. v. Beethoven" handwritten by Beethoven or his grandfather was destroyed in a fire at the Beethoven-Haus in 1960. Two books on music theory containing entries by Beethoven are kept at a library in Vienna and New York.

When Beethoven died, he left behind a large book and sheet music collection. According to the reports of a contemporary expert, it consisted of "etched musical publications of good authors", "fine theoretical writings of renowned classics" as well as "a small aesthetic hand library". As part of Beethoven's belongings books and music supplies were subject to an inventory ordered by the court and were auctioned off in early November 1827 together with his other belongings. The bequest lists and auction protocols indicate what books entered the auction and what books were sold. Beethoven's former sheet music library is categorized into "written works of different composers", "etched music works", "music books and theory books". However, the 52 numbered short titles often represent large sets of unnamed documents that in turn contained more than 60 compositions of other composers. The list also includes lent belongings of other people returned to the respective owners. Upon being registered as his bequest Beethoven's library counted at least 50 publications and was captured in a list of 44 numbers. Among those are five works that were later unregistered. Because these books were prohibited in Austria, they were confiscated and not available for sale.

The books that certainly belonged to Beethoven's music library are piano compositions by Bach, Clementi, Cramer, Reicha, string quartets by Haydn and Mozart, symphonies by Haydn, operas by Cherubini, Dalayrac, Gluck, Méhul, Monsigny, Mozart, Paisiello, Salieri, Sarti, oratorios and masses by Haydn as well as Mozart's requiem. Only the works by Händel were complete. Shortly before he died, Beethoven received the 40-folio London Händel edition as a gift. Instruction books for singing, piano and organ by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Knecht and von Türk were also part of Beethoven's possession. The exquisite collection of music theory publications Beethoven owned featured works by Albrechtsberger, Kirnberger, Koch, Marpurg, Mattheson, Riepel and Vogler. Works on music history include publications by Burney, Forkel and Schubart. Apart from that some magazines on music and aesthetic remained. However, those only constitute a small share of Beethoven's magazine consumption.

The second large category of Beethoven's library are fine literature and non-fiction books, among them dramas, poems, prose, text books and complete editions of Cicero, Euripides, Goethe, Hölty, Homer, Klopstock, La Fontaine, Schiller, Seume, Shakespeare and Tiedge. Beethoven also read non-fiction and reference books on natural sciences, philosophy, history and literary studies as well as religious literature, among them books dating back to ancient times by Bode, Camphuysen, Gräffer, Guthrie and Gray, Kant, Kempen, Kotzebue, Plutarch, Sailer, Sturm and Webb. Beethoven did not bequeath any cooking books but he evidently owned some helpful guidebooks such as travel guides for Upper Austria, Baden and Paris, medical books by Hufeland and Lichtenthal as well as some French, Italian and Latin dictionaries and a French grammar book.

The books from Beethoven's library were purchased by Vienna publishers, musicians, book sellers, antiquarians and public servants. Although their names were registered, their trace got lost due to subsequent and undocumented changes of ownership. There is little chance of finding original books without ownership notices or handwritten entries. Therefore, the library of the Beethoven-Haus acquires parallel copies in order to reconstruct Beethoven's book and sheet music collection. As books often have more than one edition, the aim is to identify the edition Beethoven owned. If the bibliographical information on sources that is missing in the lists can be determined, searching for a parallel copy can begin.

For example: Beethoven's library contained the book "Abhandlung von der Fuge" by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, a standard work on music theory. A set of documents from Beethoven's bequest kept at the Berlin State Library contains tablets with note examples taken from the first part of the composition, and in the bequest directory it is indicated by its French title "Traité de la fugue". But which of the four common editions available at the beginning of the 19th century did Beethoven own? Not even the teaching material he extracted from Marpurg and other theorists in order to teach composition to Archduke Rudolf contains any hints on the edition he used. Only by comparing the preserved tablets with all editions in a detailed way could it be determined that Beethoven owned the first edition from Haude and Spener, Berlin 1753/4. The composer might also have owned a French translation of the book: either the one of the Berlin original publishing house from 1756 or the one done by Anton Reicha that was published by Imbault in Paris in 1801.

Finding a book one is looking for is always special, especially in light of the fact that from more than 200 books only a few copies have been preserved. Besides, rare first editions are always quite expensive. Therefore, when buying precious items for Beethoven's library, the Beethoven-Haus often depends on additional donations from private contributors. The latest addition to Beethoven's library – a copy of the German first edition of Marpurg's "Abhandlung von der Fuge" – could only be purchased thanks to a generous donation of the Bonn Lions Club. As a parallel text it serves as a reference to Beethoven's own but no longer existing copy of this edition and is therefore part of the library reconstruction.