Beethoven’s Conversation Books translated to English for the first time

Where in Vienna did Ludwig van Beethoven scribble down his early compositional ideas for Missa solemnis? To which poets and writers did he gravitate the most? How did he like to eat his sausages?

These are some of the delightful insights on offer in Beethoven’s Conversation Books – a valuable set of primary source documents which not only allow us to eavesdrop on the conversations between a musical giant and his friends, but also tell the harrowing story of their survival during the World War II bombings and theft during the Soviet regime.

Up until now, a translation for English-speaking Beethoven scholars and budding biographers has been unavailable. Theodore Albrecht, Professor of Musicology at Kent State University, Ohio, has undertaken the huge task of translating these important booklets into English, with the first volume of this twelve-part series published by Boydell Press in May 2018.

So, what are the Conversation Books?

When ear trumpets failed him, the increasingly deaf Beethoven asked his companions to jot down their side of the conversation in notebooks, while he answered allowed. Today, 139 of these booklets survive, covering the years 1818 up to the composer’s death in 1827.

Counted among the roster in Volume I are Beethoven’s nephew Karl, his lawyer Johann Baptist Bach, and the newspaper editor Joseph Carl Bernard, who accompany the composer to various coffee houses and restaurants near his apartment in the Landstraße district of Vienna, converse with him on music, Shakespeare and Goethe, the Napoleonic Wars, and the tricky legal battle with his sister-in-law Johanna for his nephew, while feasting on the culinary treats on offer. Incidentally, you will find out a lot about Beethoven’s eating habits in the Conversation Books: on the opening few pages of this first edition, a suffering Karl is trying to resist his uncle’s peculiar inclination to remove the casing of a sausage and consume only the meat…

Extract from page 2 of Beethoven’s Conversation Books, Volume 1:

Prof. Albrecht has spent over a decade poring over the gothic handwriting of Beethoven: “Compared to many of his contemporaries, Beethoven was a tolerably good writer. His handwriting was an extension of late Baroque style, more akin to Johann Sebastian Bach’s than to an early nineteenth-century clerk’s.” Twenty summers of research in Vienna for Albrecht have also uncovered new archival research into the city’s street names and houses during Beethoven’s time: “the material brings the period from 1818 to 1827 in Vienna startlingly to life as no other documents can do.”

One cannot also talk of the Conversation Books without mentioning Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler, whose name is intrinsically linked to their history. Schindler kept the booklets for his projected biography of his late employer, and famously made his own notes in the booklets, on occasions filling blank pages. These falsified entries, a source of confusion in the past, have now been clearly rendered identifiable by Albrecht, who dismisses the claim that Schindler had destroyed further phantom conversation booklets and hopes to clear Schindler’s tarnished reputation.

It is wonderful to think that these booklets with their pencil scribblings once rode around Vienna in Beethoven’s coat pocket, survived the Second World War in countryside bunkers, a heist by the zealous head of the Music Department at Berlin State Library – who wanted to keep them away from Soviet hands – and now for the first time English-speaking Beethoven enthusiasts, social and cultural historians will be able to consult them with ease.

Just imagine the transportive effect they hold: you are at a Viennese boarding house sitting opposite one of the most important musical figures in classical music on a Friday evening in the nineteenth century, while discussing the recent assassination of the Duke of Berry, you make a passing note: “Take some smoked salmon; it is very good…”

Beethoven’s Conversation Books, Volume 1: Nos. 1 to 8 (February 1818 to March 1820) edited and translated by Theodore Albrecht is available from Boydell Press in hardback for £45.00/ €54.00 RRP