Alexander Wheelock Thayer

Brief life of Beethoven's biographer: 1817-1897

As a pianist, conductor, and composer, Ludwig van Beethoven was the most famous musician in music-crazy early-nineteenth-century Europe. He also displayed personal traits—a love of nature, a mercurial temperament, unorthodox behavior—that made him a superb embodiment of the wild “Romantic genius.” It is thus surprising that it took so long after his death in 1827 for a qualified biographer to appear. The early contenders—Franz G. Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries in 1838, Anton Schindler in 1840—were friends of Beethoven whose accounts were interesting but skimpy, unscholarly, and contradictory.

Enter Alexander Wheelock Thayer, A.B. 1843, LL.B. ’48, a proper Bostonian with research skills gained as a Harvard library assistant. He was very musical, although he played no instrument: he had composed some short works, read extensively in music history and criticism, and had written short magazine pieces on those subjects. He knew of the existing lives of Beethoven, and their flaws, and conceived of writing his own scholarly biography. In 1849 he left for Europe “to study the German language” (as he wrote 40 years later) “not so much for its noble literature, as in the hope of finding new matter to add to Schindler, Wegeler, and Ries’s writings upon Beethoven, the whole to be digested into a modest and concise volume of biography for American readers.”

For two and a half years he traveled, doing research while supporting himself by writing articles on European culture for the Boston Courier. Despite frequent ill health (possibly migraines), which continued throughout his life, he returned home only when his money ran out. He joined the New York Tribune (“I overworked my brain on that newspaper and have never recovered,” he recalled), but in 1854 was back in Germany, pursuing his former routine.

A rare photograph of Alexander Wheelock Thayer, dated 1897, the year of his death, from the collection of Luigi D. Bellofatto. Reprinted with permission.
From the collection of Luigi D. Bellofatto. For reuse e-mail [email protected].

By the mid 1850s he had decided to write the biography in English, but also to have it translated into German, the language of Beethoven and of nineteenth-century scholarship. He was assiduous in gathering primary sources, scouring old newspapers for contemporary references and even obtaining court records of the composer’s legal battles to obtain custody of his nephew, Karl. He analyzed Beethoven’s Conversation Books, containing written questions and answers to and from the deaf composer, and was proud to be “the first person ever to use Beethoven’s sketch books for chronology.” He also tried to interview those who had known Beethoven decades before. He wanted to be as objective as possible—he described Beethoven’s inner turmoil, his problems with women, and his often-troubled relations with publishers—and to collect material that might otherwise be lost and that could be useful to later scholars. “I fight for no theories, and cherish no prejudices,” he asserted proudly. “[M]y sole point of view is the truth.” In 1858, his article “Beethoven: his childhood and youth” was published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly—the first work of its kind based on original documents.

Thayer was not only a formidable historian, he was a versatile prose stylist. His Beethoven is a model of sobriety, but he could be a severe and sometimes sarcastic critic. His lengthy 1860 Atlantic Monthly review of A.B. Marx’s Beethoven biography skewered the author for inaccuracies, superficialities, and unacknowledged borrowings. By contrast, his articles on Antonio Salieri in Dwight’s Journal of Music, perhaps the most thorough biography of that composer and teacher yet to appear in English, are often quite breezy.

In 1862, aided by Senator Charles Sumner, a fellow alumnus, Thayer began a diplomatic career, joining the American legation in Vienna while continuing work on his magnum opus. In 1865 he became U.S. consul in Trieste, where he served until 1882 and spent the rest of his life, filling his home with Beethoven memorabilia and participating enthusiastically in the musical and social activities of his adopted city. He executed his consular duties and wrote various books and essays even as his health deteriorated, but his intense commitment to the biography is indicated by a comment to his American editor, Henry E. Krehbiel, that an hour or two of thought devoted to Beethoven unfitted him for labor of any kind.

The writing, translating, and publishing of his great work proved a long, complex venture. Thayer entrusted the German translation to his friend Hermann Deiters, a musicologist; the first three volumes, covering Beethoven’s life to 1816, were published in 1866, 1872, and 1879 in Berlin. It is not fully clear where in the biography Thayer himself stopped writing, forcing subsequent editors to work from his notes. After Deiters died in 1907, before completing volume iv (through 1823), fellow musicologist Hugo Riemann finished it and the fifth and final volume. They appeared in 1907-8.

Not until 1921—almost 75 years after Thayer first traveled to Europe—did an English Life of Beethoven appear, compiled by Krehbiel from its author’s original manuscript, his notes, and the German edition. It was worth waiting for. In spite of all the delays and revisions, the book is still that of Alexander Wheelock Thayer. His patient research through “the long and wearisome labors of so many years,” as he put it, brings us closest “to Beethoven the man.”

Henry N. Claman ’52 is Distinguished Professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, as well as a pianist and trained choral singer. Italian engineer and musicologist Luigi D. Bellofatto, a trained pianist and organist, is at work on the first full-length biography of Thayer. The Life of Beethoven was most recently revised and edited by the late Peabody professor of music emeritus, Elliot Forbes ’41, D.Mus. ’03, to whose memory the authors dedicate this article.

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