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America's BeethovenAlexander Wheelock Thayer

The late nineteenth century was a golden age of musical biography as German musicologists began to produce comprehensive, multi-volume studies of prominent composers of the previous two centuries:  Otto Jahn on Mozart, Friedrich Chrysander on Handel, Philipp Spitta on Bach. The task of writing the standard biography of Beethoven fell upon an unlikely candidate: Alexander Wheelock Thayer.  Although a graduate of Harvard College, he had little training in music, few contacts with German academics, and chose to write in English. He was not the first person to write a large biography of Beethoven.  Ludwig Nohl’s four-volume study appeared between 1867-77, but it too polemical, too filled with obscure asides to reach the same stature as Spitta’s or Jahn’s. 

Thayer spent almost his entire adult life on his Beethoven biography and succeeded only through sheer determination. Suffering from poor health and slowed by few resources, he had to work as a librarian, journalist, and diplomat. In his desire to produce a factually accurate study based on original sources (including both documents and interviews), he worked to counter the Beethoven legends that had grown throughout the century.  Because he could not find an English language publisher, the first three volumes were published in Germany in a translation by Hermann Deiters.

Although Thayer lived another eighteen years after volume three appeared in 1879, he was never able to finish the biography. After his death, Deiters and then, after Deiters’ death in 1907, Hugo Riemann completed the last two volumes using Thayer’s papers and documents. They were published in 1907-08. Only in 1921 did an English version appear, translated by the New York music critic Henry Kriehbel.

In spite of the many hands that have added to, revised, and edited Thayer’s biography, it remains not only the definitive study of Beethoven but a monument to and an exemplar of careful, persistent documentary research.  That a young man from a Massachusetts town of 879 people would choose to undertake this task and then succeed so spectacularly is a remarkable story. —Michael Broyles

To view the Thayer materials included in the America's Beethoven exhibit, please see our Thayer Collection page (Treasure 8) from our 25 Treasures for 25 Years exhibit.