Beethoven – Two men and a fortepiano

Friday 2 February 2018

This week we present a letter from Ludwig (Louis) van Beethoven (1770-1827) writing from Vienna in February 1818 to the London piano manufacturer Thomas Broadwood in anticipation of the gift of a six-octave fortepiano. The letter is one of the highlights of the Marseille Middleton Holloway collection, recently entrusted to the University.  The letter is written in French, in Beethoven’s famously appalling handwriting.

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Letter from Ludwig van Beethoven to Thomas Broadwood, 3 February 1818, in French (ms39022)

My very dear Friend Broadwood,

I have never felt a greater pleasure than that which was caused me by the Intimation of the arrival of this Piano, with which you are honouring me as a present. I shall look upon it As an Altar upon which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit to the divine Apollo. As soon as I receive your Excellent Instrument, I shall immediately send you the fruits of the first moments of inspiration I will spend at it, to serve as a souvenir from me to you, my very dear B.; and I hope that they will be worthy of your instrument. My Dear Sir and friend, accept my warmest consideration, from your friend and very humble servant,

Louis Van Beethoven
3rd February 1818.

The firm of John Broadwood & Sons was established in the early 18th century and counted Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa and Haydn amongst its harpsichord customers. Thomas Broadwood had met Beethoven in Vienna in 1817.  Beethoven was by then quite unwell and starting to become deaf.

On his return, Broadwood gathered five of the finest pianists in London to help design the instrument, which was dispatched from London on 27 December 1817. Its long journey over land and sea included transportation over the Alps. Broadwood notified Beethoven in early January 1818 that the instrument had been dispatched. Beethoven immediately contacted Count Moritz Lichnowsky (1771–1837) and asked him to speak with the finance minister on his behalf so that he would be allowed to obtain the instrument free of custom fees and other charges. It reached Vienna some months later, much to Beethoven’s delight, who writes in the letter

“I shall look upon it As an Altar upon which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit to the divine Apollo.”

The piano arrived slightly damaged after an arduous journey. It was the only English piano in Vienna. Beethoven enlisted his friend, the Viennese piano builder Nanette Streicher, to make the necessary repairs.

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Beethoven’s Broadwood Piano in the Hungarian National Museum

Beethoven treasured the piano, and he used it to write many of his later works including the sonata ‘Hammerklavier’ (op.106). It is possible that the Broadwood was the piano on which child prodigy Liszt played for Beethoven at the age of about 11. After Beethoven’s death in 1827 the piano was presented to Franz Liszt, who later donated it to the Hungarian National Museum.

In 1991, Beethoven’s Broadwood was restored and featured in a tour with the fortepianist Melvyn Tan. 2018 is the bicentenary of the delivery of Broadwood’s piano to Beethoven.

In addition to the letter from Beethoven, and one from his friend Joseph Anton Bridi, the collection contains an engraving of Beethoven from a portrait of Beethoven composing his ‘Missa Solemnis in D#’ by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1819.

Left: Engraving of Beethoven from portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820. Right: Portrait of Beethoven, 1820 by Joseph Karl Stieler

The Marseille Middleton Holloway Collection contains a fascinating array of historical documents associated with some key figures in British and French political and literary history from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Highlights include correspondence from Elizabeth I, James VI and I, Charles I, Beethoven, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Benjamin Franklin, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Lord Nelson, and a number of important French figures including Napoleon, Louis XIV, François I, Voltaire and Rousseau.

The collection was built up by Marseille Middleton Holloway (1809-1897), a well-known London dealer in prints, engravings and autographs, with a shop in Bedford Street.

The Holloway family have strong connections with the University of St Andrews. John Williams Williams was the first Professor of History at the University from 1929 until 1955. Professor Williams was brother-in-law of Principal James Irvine and married one of Marseille Middleton Holloway’s grand-daughters. The albums were housed in St Andrews in the 1930s when interested academics were able to view them. They have now been entrusted to St Andrews where they will support teaching and research at the University.

Gabriel Sewell
Assistant Director of Library Services (Special Collections)

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