WYNNEWOOD, Pa. — A working manuscript of one of Beethoven’s final compositions has been rediscovered in a seminary library and could fetch more than $2 million at auction.
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The 80-page manuscript of Beethoven’s “Gross Fuge” for piano duet was created when he was deaf and is filled with editing and notations from the composer’s own hand. Never before seen by scholars, it was written a few months before the composer’s death in 1827.
It was found by a librarian clearing out old archives at the Palmer Theological Seminary and displayed briefly at the seminary Thursday in a glass case and under the eyes of several plainclothes guards.
The discovery was kept hidden since July while the bound manuscript, roughly the size of a magazine, was authenticated and appraised.
“That has been the toughest part — keeping this all a secret till now,” seminary president Wallace Smith said.
Longtime librarian Heather Carbo, whom school officials said did not wish to speak with reporters Thursday, found the manuscript on the bottom shelf of an old cabinet in the library. Months earlier, an electrical fire had damaged many items in the library archives but the manuscript was not touched by fire, smoke or water.
“There is no doubt that it was a providential act,” Smith said.
‘A very important discovery’
University of Pennsylvania musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg, who authenticated the manuscript, said its condition was pristine because it has not been touched or moved for so many decades.
“It’s a very important discovery,” he said. “This was a controversial and not understood work because it was so ahead of its time. It sounds like it was written by a dissonant 20th-century composer.”
The manuscript was last mentioned in an 1890 auction catalog from Berlin. No documents were ever located to indicate who had purchased it then, but seminary officials now believe that the buyer was industrialist and hymn composer William Howard Doane.
His daughter, Marguerite Treat Doane, in 1950 donated to the seminary a collection of documents, including musical manuscripts that likely included the Beethoven, to pay for construction of a chapel.
Somewhere along the way, it was forgotten.
“In all the Beethoven literature, it’s described as lost,” said Stephen Roe, a Sotheby’s expert in charge of the Dec. 1 sale. “There are lots of alterations, changes, revisions that no one has ever seen.”
It marks the second such discovery in recent years at the seminary, which is part of Eastern University just outside Philadelphia’s city limits. Original manuscripts by Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, Meyerbeer and Spohr were found in a safe in 1990. They were also part of the Doane gift.
The collection from 1990 — seminary officials dubbed it the “Mozart miracle” — fetched nearly $1.6 million at auction by Sotheby’s in London, which also will sell the Beethoven manuscript. Sotheby’s estimates that the current find could bring as much as $2.6 million.
The proceeds from the sale of what Smith called the “Beethoven blessing” will be used to pay debts, build up the scholarship program and expand initiatives including a training program in West Virginia, he said.