The Beethoven Center Turns Thirty
By Cathleen Miller
Imagine a lock of your hair having a life of its own—traveling from your head on your deathbed in Vienna to being clipped by a mourner as a remembrance…then, over a century later, carried as a treasured heirloom to an attic hideaway as the mourner’s relatives tried to avoid the Nazi death camps…given to a kind visiting doctor to smuggle out and hide for safety…only to be discovered later by that doctor’s confused wife after his death…eventually sold by the wife to Sotheby’s…and finally winding up at San José State in King Library to reside coiled in a glass case as the most precious artifact in the campus’s world-renowned Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies.
The Beethoven Center, as it is commonly known, will be celebrating its thirtieth year on July 24, 2015 at a gala honoring Dr. William Meredith, its founding director. Meredith was a young graduate student finishing his dissertation on Beethoven’s sonatas at the University of North Carolina when he was invited to join SJSU. The impetus was a donation by Ira Brilliant, a life-long music enthusiast who had amassed a collection of first-edition music scores of Beethoven’s work.
When Meredith made his way to San José in 1985, he found an empty room and boxes of books and artifacts waiting to be catalogued. Luckily, the next year he was joined by the Center’s curator, Patricia Stroh. During the decades that followed they have overseen the growth of the Center’s collection to 30,000 items, making it the largest repository of Beethoven materials outside of Europe.
When visitors walk into the space they are greeted by the beauty of handcrafted historical keyboards, the type used in Beethoven’s time. Three fortepianos, a harpsichord, and a clavichord are on display.
Other noteworthy treasures on display include original letters in Beethoven’s handwriting that would fetch between $50,000 and $300,000 in today’s marketplace; most were a gift from Ira Brilliant. All other additions to the Center’s collection have been funded through grants, donations, or support from the American Beethoven Society.
Dr. Meredith, as a leading scholar on the composer, edits the Beethoven Journal. One issue explored the mystery of a 13-page love letter penned by Ludwig to a woman known only as “Immortal Beloved.” Much contention has existed amongst scholars as to the identity of the letter’s recipient, hovering around a list of likely candidates. (Meredith’s favored suspect for “Immortal Beloved” is Bettina Brentano, a writer and social activist.)
Besides the Center’s museum and journal, it offers numerous other gifts to lovers of classical music, helping to support the research of individuals ranging from Beethoven scholars around the globe to SJSU music history classes to elementary school students writing their first essay on the composer. A primary tool to aid all these groups has been the creation of the Beethoven Gateway, a free digital database of information. The Center’s staff also hosts a continuous stream of events and exhibitions on the fifth floor of King Library. Each spring they conduct the Annual Celia Mendez Young Pianist’s Beethoven Competition for California high school students.
Meredith also plays the role of the sleuth, as do many serious scholars. Some of the strands of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair were analyzed to learn about his medical history. One theory that doctors proposed was that even on his deathbed the musical genius refused to take any opiates for pain, hoping to keep composing until he drew his last breath.
After thirty years directing the Center Dr. Meredith says, “The thing I continue to love about my job is when people walk through the door and get really excited. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Donations from around the world support the Center and have helped make it one of the many centers of excellence at SJSU!