Was score in Beethoven's hand? Experts differ

NEW YORK • When a 232-page handwritten score of Mahler's epic Second Symphony (Resurrection) sold for US$5.6 million (S$8.1 million) at Sotheby's in London last month, it shattered a nearly 30-year record for the highest price paid at auction for a musical manuscript.

The Mahler is one of the most valuable post-Renaissance manuscripts of any kind to be sold at auction, fetching more than recent sales of Jack Kerouac's draft of On The Road or Bob Dylan's lyrics for Like A Rolling Stone.

But a less important score that failed to sell that same day has since transfixed the music world.

A brief Beethoven work for string quartet went unsold when, before the auction, a scholar publicly questioned the assertion by Sotheby's, and its experts, that the work was written in Beethoven's hand - igniting an acrimonious debate in the generally staid, tweedy precincts of musicologists and manuscript dealers.

Beethoven's Allegretto In B Minor for string quartet, a recently rediscovered work, has 23 bars of music.

The listing in the Sotheby's catalogue, below a photograph of the score, was unequivocal: It described the work as an "autograph manuscript", meaning it was in Beethoven's hand and stated that it was a copy the composer had made of the piece, which he had composed the day before, as a gift for a visiting Englishman. The score was expected to sell for up to US$248,000.

The controversy erupted when music professor Barry Cooper at the University of Manchester, in England, who has published a performing edition of Beethoven's piano sonatas, went to the BBC claiming that the work was "not in Beethoven's hand".

He told The New York Times that he and another scholar had previously told Christie's they did not believe it was genuine and questioned why Sotheby's, which knew Christie's had passed on the chance to sell the score, did not acknowledge in its catalogue that there was a difference of opinion about the document.

Mr Simon Maguire, senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby's, said that while he had known that Christie's had passed on the score, he had not known which experts the auction house had relied on or what their doubts were.

He said Sotheby's had relied on the opinions of experts it trusted, including Nicholas Marston, a professor of music at King's College, Cambridge.

"They gave the all-clear. They said this was genuine and they have maintained that opinion since, as well," he said.

He faulted professor Cooper for passing judgment on the manuscript without inspecting it personally. "Barry Cooper seems to think he has a sort of hotline to Beethoven in heaven and that he can judge a thing without seeing the original," he said.

Prof Cooper said he did not need to inspect it in person since his doubts centred on the handwriting and a handful of notes that differed from a widely embraced manuscript of the work that Sotheby's experts discovered in 1999.

Before the sale, Sotheby's issued a notice about the lot, noting that some scholars had suggested it was a 19th-century copy, but adding that "this opinion is not accepted by Sotheby's, or the majority of world-renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally".

Since then, an unusual musicology drama has played out in the British news media.

The Telegraph reported that one of the experts who had advised Christie's that the work was not in Beethoven's hand, Mr Michael Ladenburger, head of the Beethoven- Haus museum, in Bonn, Germany, had later sought to buy the score for a low price. It quoted Mr Otto Biba, director of the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, a highly respected scholar, as saying that such an offer would represent a conflict of interest.

Mr Ladenburger told The Telegraph that the accusation was "simply unfair", but declined to comment further, saying in an e-mail, "I don't want to extend a story which is unprofitable - not for me but for others."

Professor Marston said in an interview that he concluded the work was written by Beethoven despite what he called "anomalies", including the way the double bars were written and the fact that the viola part is missing a sharp sign in its key signature. "While I don't dispute that there are peculiarities in it," he said, "I'm inclined to say that on the balance of probabilities, we should assume that it is in Beethoven's hand."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Was score in Beethoven's hand? Experts differ'. Print Edition | Subscribe