Beethoven Center at San Jose State celebrates 25th anniversary with exhibition

By: Richard Scheinin/Mercury News

The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. The most ambitious Beethoven study center outside Bonn, Germany, where Beethoven was born, is celebrating its silver anniversary with a sold-out fundraising banquet and concert next weekend — and with a free exhibit titled “25 Treasures for 25 Years.”

I spoke with William Meredith, the center’s director going back to 1985, about the exhibit, which opens Saturday at the Martin Luther King Library. (That’s where you’ll find the center, on the fifth floor). It includes letters penned by the composer, first-edition musical scores, rare paintings and other images of Beethoven — as well as a famous lock of his hair. (A bestselling book, “Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved,” by Russell Martin, tells its story.)

Beyond the exhibit, Meredith explained the uniqueness of the center, which grew out of a collection of Beethoven’s letters, scores and memorabilia donated to the university by the late Ira F. Brilliant. He was an Arizona real estate developer whose life, like those of millions of others, was transformed by Beethoven.

Q Bill, I’m going to let you brag on your anniversary. Outside of Bonn, Germany — home to the Beethoven-Haus center, the world’s biggest — is there any other Beethoven research center that rivals the one in San Jose?

A
Advertisement
There isn’t anything like it anywhere, actually. It’s very American, very open and accessible. When you walk in, you can actually sit down and play some of the instruments in the collection, very fine reproductions of instruments similar to those played by Beethoven and his contemporaries. So elementary school kids come in, and they get to try the harpsichord and the clavichord and the early piano. Well, this just blows them away, and they stay for hours.

We also have original, antique instruments from Beethoven’s time, including a Broadwood piano, made in London in 1823 — and similar to the instrument Beethoven owned in Vienna, the one on which he composed his late sonatas. Someone from the staff will demonstrate the Broadwood — and our other vintage instruments — for the school kids, or whoever’s visiting.

Q This doesn’t happen in Germany?

A No! In Bonn and in most music instrument museums, you can only look. It’s very frustrating to look at something that wants to be heard. Here at the center, everybody gets the docent-led tour. Everybody gets to hear the instruments. And the same is true of the books on the walls: They’re open for everybody to use. Let’s say a high school kid wants to do research on Beethoven’s deafness. He can come in and look at all the books we have on the subject, whereas in Germany, the kid could never even get into the Beethoven Archive at the Beethoven-Haus.

Q The Bonn center obviously is much older than yours.

A Yes, nearly a century older. It opened in 1889.

Q And it’s much bigger.

A Sure. But we’ve got some rare stuff, too, and we’re always adding more. We’re just now raising funds for a second lock of hair — one that Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler, his first biographer, actually cut while Beethoven was still alive.

But we already have cooler things than that. We have several of Beethoven’s letters, some of which we’ve never had on display until now. They’re in the new exhibit.

As is a newly discovered painting of Beethoven — a very old copy of a lost painting, one of the earliest portraits of Beethoven, a historical image. In fact, we’re showing numerous images of Beethoven, including a copperplate engraving by an artist named Blasius Hofel: Beethoven once said of this engraving, “Several people have discerned my soul clearly from it.”

And there’s another engraving of Beethoven’s doctor during the time when Beethoven was writing his Heiligenstadt Testament. (In his “testament,” the composer despaired over his illnesses and increasing deafness, wondering if he would be able to fulfill his destiny as an artist.) It’s a really beautiful, high-quality picture, so you actually get to see what this doctor — who foolishly sent the composer to the countryside “to rest his ears” — looked like.

Q Impressive.

A I think so. But coming back to your question, the Bonn center will always have more autographs than we do — more manuscripts and musical scores from the composer’s hand.

But maybe in 75 years we’ll have caught up in other ways. We’ve already created what some scholars have called the greatest research tool for studying Beethoven — the Beethoven Gateway, an ongoing bibliography and resource for almost everything written about Beethoven, about 20,000 items so far. We’ve just started to add scores: You can click on the score and print a copy of the first edition. And we’re adding digital images from our large collection of illustrations of Beethoven and his world. (Go to www.sjsu.edu/beethoven, and click on “Beethoven Online”.)

Q Are there other Beethoven centers and museums?

A Several little boutique museums exist. The Brunswick Castle outside of Budapest has a Beethoven room that’s a little museum. There’s also a little Beethoven room in the Erdödy estate outside of Vienna.

Q What else is unique about the center in San Jose?

A We publish the Beethoven Journal — again, there’s nothing like it, anywhere. At the Beethoven-Haus, they publish a journal that comes out once a year, but it’s made up of scholarly articles written for other scholars and not intended for the general public. Whereas the Beethoven Journal, which comes out two times a year, always includes two or three articles that are scholarly, but it also tries to aim at interested non-professional people.

For example, the new issue includes an article about the origins of the only Beethoven museum in Vienna, the Pasqualati-Haus Beethoven Museum. It describes how, in 1939, the Nazis decried the “abomination” of a Jewish family living in what was mistakenly thought to be Beethoven’s most important apartment in Vienna. The family was thrown out, eventually sent to Auschwitz, and the museum was founded as a “sacred place of devotion.”

And now the author of the article, Walther Brauneis, reveals the sordid history of the Nazis’ founding of the museum and shows that it was all a mistake. Beethoven actually lived next door to the apartment that is the museum. All year long, Beethoven lovers visit what they think is Beethoven’s apartment, without knowing the horror and error of its founding.

That’s an example of what we do. The Beethoven Center works to break down the walls of academia in terms of sharing information about Beethoven with the world at large. Rather than having the view that the information uncovered by scholars is intended only for scholars, we’ve taken the view that it’s for everyone. And given Beethoven’s impact on the world, the more we know, the better off we are. It helps everyone to understand what his music means and what it can teach us about what it means to be fully human.

Q You’re coordinating a series of scholarly books on Beethoven?

A It’s called the North American Beethoven Series, and it’s put out some incredibly important books. I didn’t write them! The center has co-sponsored the series with other institutions and — because San Jose State doesn’t have its own press — with other university presses.

It contains the first collection, in three volumes (from University of Nebraska Press), of the letters that were written to Beethoven, rather than by him. You can finally read the other half of the conversation. Ted Albrecht is the editor.

And then there’s a collection of all the reviews of Beethoven’s works. So any review, say, of the Fifth Symphony that was published during Beethoven’s lifetime (he died in 1827), and then up to 1830, is in the book. And they’re translated into English, and I’m working on it with two other editors. We’ve published two of the four volumes so far, again from the University of Nebraska Press, and the next two will be published by Pendragon.

A reviewer from 1813 was already writing, five years after the Fifth’s premiere, that it was a “classic” of large-scale instrumental music, but he also pointed out that the famous Scherzo movement had fallen apart at every performance he had heard because of its incredible difficulty. Some critics were still dismayed in December 1826, four months before Beethoven died. One reviewer called the Fifth so crazy and wild that it was contrary to good taste, that it’s monstrously long, and the third movement is so “extremely fatiguing” that the listeners have no desire to hear any more music when the work finally ends. Thank God the poor Beethoven, already on his deathbed, didn’t see that one!

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.

’25 Treasures for 25 Years’

Exhibit at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies
When: Saturday through Dec. 11: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, 1-5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fifth Floor, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Library, 150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose
Admission: Free