Copy of Joseph Willibrord Mähler's 1805 portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by an unidentified artist
What better way to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday than with a unique portrait of Beethoven. The impressive oil-painting above usually hangs in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on the 3rd floor in the Research Division. (Due to recent reconfiguration of public space, the painting is temporarily taking a rest from public view.) It measures 57 x 46 inches and has an impressive provenance. You can see some of its former owners by looking at the catalog record for the painting.
Its most notable owner was Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817-1897), a musicologist and author of a comprehensive Beethoven biography (volume 1 was first published in 1866) that was considered the leading work in Beethoven research for nearly a century. (Later in life, Thayer was the American consul at Trieste, Italy, and this portrait hung in his quarters.) In three volumes and totaling over 1,300 pages, access to this biography was an obstacle for the English speaking public.
Enter the Beethoven Association, a social group formed in 1918 in order to fund translation of Thayer’s biography into English. Led by the pianist Harold Bauer and comprised (in part) of leading performers of the day, the Beethoven Association gave chamber concerts in order to raise funds for the translation project. Their efforts were well rewarded: Henry E. Krehbiel’s translation was published by the Association in 1921.
Not only did they succeed, but they became a popular society, sponsoring many concerts with notable performers between the wars.
Program for a concert put on by the Beethoven Association, April 11, 1938
The Association acquired their own library of rare first and early editions of Beethoven, enabled members to purchase relevant publications concerning Beethoven, and donated funds to causes promulgating Beethoven. Apparently impressed with the Society’s efforts and thankful for their translation of her father’s magnum opus, Thayer’s daugher donated the oil-painting in the late 1920s.
Letterhead of the Beethoven Association
By 1940, the Association had run its course and disbanded. The Music Division is very fortunate to have inherited the Association’s holdings, including the oil painting. Items from the Association’s library became part of our holdings, where they are recognizable by their green leather bindings.
First and early editions of Beethoven symphonies, from the library of the Beethoven Association (recognizable from their green leather bindings)
We also have an archival collection representing the business records and correspondence done on behalf of the society, including letters from many famous musicians.
Sample pages from the finding aid to the Beethoven Association Records
Even though the Association disbanded in 1940, their legacy continues to this day. Their financial assets were also donated to the New York Public Library, forming a permanent source of funding for the Music Division. Intended to strengthen our holdings in classical music, the Beethoven Association Fund has allowed the Music Division to purchase many unique items such as facsimiles editions (which tend to be limited editions).
Beautiful facsimile of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, purchased with funds from the Beethoven Association
The Music Division is grateful to the Beethoven Association for not only providing us with many unique scores and materials (such as the oil painting), but for the continual funding which assists us with The New York Public Library's mission.
Happy 240th, Ludwig. And thank you, Beethoven Association.
Bookplate for items purchased with Beethoven Association funds
You don't have to form an association to support the institution that remains one of New York's greatest gifts. All contributions, large and small, help sustain the Library's free services and preserve our most magnificent treasures. Donate Today!