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.