$2,000,000

A page from one of Beethoven’s many surviving sketchbooks, this one containing drafts of the Ninth Symphony, sold for 1.3 million pounds, or roughly two million dollars, in 2003. I’m going to repeat that: Somebody bought a sketch of the “Joy” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth for two million dollars. Maybe it’s not surprising, but it’s certainly a bit disturbing. Think, for a moment, about what else you could buy with that kind of money. How many people could you feed? How many houses could you heat? How many new pieces could you commission? What if you’d donated those monies to the Ohio Democratic Party in October 2004?

The purchase of a Beethoven sketch for two million dollars is, in a sense, the indulgence of an extremely expensive fetish. It is not about music. It goes without saying that Beethoven was a great composer, but a willingness on the part of the super-rich to fork over two million says absolutely nothing about the quality of his work. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but my feeling is that the pocketbook veneration of long-dead composers, further evidence of the ongoing legendary construction of figures like Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner, can only be bad news for new music. It’s fair to assume that the tycoon who bought the Beethoven sketch is a big Beethoven fan, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he or she is a big fan of music—i.e. that he or she is fundamentally interested in helping to cultivate a dynamic musical culture, a continuation of the musical culture that brought him or her the celebrated Ludwig. In fact, he or she seems quite willing to invest in the idea that Beethoven is some sort of unassailable, one-off artistic monolith, the procuring of whose precompositional materials can magically legitimize one’s riches. Beethoven’s sketch is now a solid asset.

So, if any media moguls or oil barons are reading this, take note: Spending a lot of money on pieces of paper associated with music will not help you understand it. Get yourself a subscription to a local orchestra or chamber group instead—I don’t know the law well enough to speak definitively, but you might still be able to evade capital gains taxes.

6 thoughts on “$2,000,000

  1. danielgilliam

    My gues is that the same individual (or organization) who bought this antiquity gives generously to their local music community.

    We can try and be cynical about this, but come on, do you really think Britney Spears or 50 Cent picked this up on their way through London for s*!#$ and giggles?

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  2. vachon321

    “Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but my feeling is that the pocketbook veneration of long-dead composers, further evidence of the ongoing legendary construction of figures like Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner, can only be bad news for new music.”

    Sorry. The purchase of rare music manuscripts has absolutely nothing to do with New Music—apples and oranges.

    And, while your wishes for these large sums of money to go to more socially-conscious causes is laudible, again, apples and oranges.

    It also is important that great works of art be preserved and this costs money, a lot of money. I expect many contemporary composers’ scores, will, eventually, be in some museum or university library too.

    Believe it or not, (and this personally pains me), some super-wealthy folks know an awful lot of about music (I can name one here but I won’t) and they purchase rare manuscripts with the express purpose of donating them to Libraries and museums.

    This is not a bad thing (even if they aren’t nice people).

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  3. Colin Holter

    I admit that I’m by no means well-informed when it comes to the high-end market for musical antiquities, but the above post prompted a few questions that the poster (or a similarly in-the-know reader) could answer:

    1. “The purchase of rare music manuscripts has absolutely nothing to do with New Music.” This is exactly the problem. Such mammoth purchases seem (and, again, please correct me if I’m wrong) to skew heavily toward late 18th-/early 19th-century composers’ leavings, reinforcing the perception that only old, dead composers produce music of value. If the currency of that perspective doesn’t pose a problem for new music, I don’t know what does.

    2. “It also is important that great works of art be preserved and this costs money, a lot of money.” Are Beethoven’s sketches at risk? Can their acquisition by the independently wealthy really be considered an act of preservation and a service to posterity? Maybe, but that’s certainly not how I heard it.

    3. “Believe it or not, (and this personally pains me), some super-wealthy folks know an awful lot of about music (I can name one here but I won’t) and they purchase rare manuscripts with the express purpose of donating them to Libraries and museums.” I believe it, and I applaud such generosity – but my understanding is that in the case of this Beethoven sketch there was no such altruism.

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  4. kmanlove

    I may be saying this because that manuscript has no value to me whatsoever (sure, his sketches are more interesting to look at than most composers, but it’s still paper), but wouldn’t using that $2 million to perform, educate, and promote the 9th symphony on a mass scale be worth more? I was playing Cranium the other day, and none of my friends (all with degrees) knew that the “humdinger” that I was humming to them was “Ode to Joy” from the 9th symphony. Hmmm….

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  5. vachon321

    Many twentieth-century (and twenty-first)scores ARE being preserved in Libraries and museums—just look at the Morgan Library’s collection, for example. Also the recent acquisition by the Juilliard Library of a huge number of rare manuscripts, which boasts of far more than just Beethoven’s music. Having this music available for scholars, students, and faculty members to study and view, I think, is a very, very worthwhile investment. Hopefully, these kinds of bequests will help preserve ALL great music, new and old.

    You might have a look at the Earle Brown foundation’s website. It is clear that his work and legacy is being painstakingly catalogued and preserved.

    The bottom line is, you can tell rich people how and on what to spend their money. I’m grateful for those who have championed contemporary music (even if they don’t personally like it), have created foundations for it, and, yes, who have bought manuscripts of great composers, new and old, and donated them to a Library or University so that people can study them.

    I’m heading over to the Morgan now.

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  6. JKG

    Good investment…
    I’m sure a written work by Luigi Nono would fetch a nice sum. And what about Boulez? He goes through so many sketches trying to decide what and how to finish his work, I’m sure there’s plenty of excess dross to auction off! It is easy to get bothered that someone paid attention to Beethoven for any amount of perceived worth, fetish or not – but what if that fetish had anything to do with musical beauty in the buyer’s mind? Wouldn’t that justify the purchase? To folks unconcerned with beauty, I feel confident to say they would note such a purchase as obscene.

    Reply

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