Music sleuth

Q&A/Recently in the news for authenticating an original Beethoven manuscript, Jeffrey Kallberg has spent his career getting up close and personal with his favorite composers.

Jeffrey Kallberg

“An interesting manuscript to me is one with all sorts of cross-outs and changes.”

--Jeffrey Kallberg

When Jeffrey Kallberg was 5 years old, his parents sat him down in front of the television to watch a Walt Disney-produced biography of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

From that point on, Kallberg knew what he wanted do—live a life in music. It was just a matter of figuring out what that life would be.

“I remember standing in front of the television, pretending I was a conductor,” says Kallberg, a Penn music history professor. “I took piano lessons after that for most of my childhood. But I never thought I was going to be good enough to be a performer. And I never thought there was anything else to do in music except be a performer.”

It was only in college, when he took an introduction to music course, that Kallberg saw a future in music outside of the concert hall. Today, he is considered one of the world’s top experts on Frederic Chopin and a leading authority on music manuscript authentication. It’s a career that has given him an opportunity to travel the world, study rare documents and get to know some of music’s greatest historical geniuses. Most recently, Kallberg was the first expert to authenticate a recently discovered original manuscript from his earliest influence: Beethoven. The 80-page manuscript for the composer’s late-period Grosse Fugue turned up at the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood.

Kallberg confirmed it to be the real thing, and it is expected to sell next month for more than $2 million.

Q. What makes a manuscript “interesting” for you?

A. An interesting manuscript to me is one with all sorts of cross-outs and changes, which are actually sort of puzzles to figure out what the earlier versions were. It’s an interesting aspect of the research to kind of figure out what those versions tell you about the composition style. The changes show how they go about composing.

Q. How did you become involved with this recent Beethoven manuscript?

A. I was on vacation with my family in Sweden, and I was checking email. I got an email from someone I didn’t know—this turned out to be the dean at Palmer—saying they had this early 19th-century music manuscript they would like authenticated and that they had been told I was someone who could do this. I got back to them and phoned them and asked, “Do you have any idea who you think it’s by?” And they said, “We think it’s Beethoven.’”

Q. When they said “Beethoven,” what did you expect?

A. I follow the auction market, because I’m just curious what’s selling for what, and so I know the typical thing that would turn up would be a sketch leaf—just a single page. But that’s exciting enough. They sell for a lot of money. Beethoven was an avid sketcher, and he kept all the sketches, probably because he was going deaf, but also because I believe that’s how he started his work. He would work out his ideas compulsively on paper. They’re amazing documents for seeing the genesis for different works.

Q. But what the seminary had wasn’t just a sketch, was it?

A. I went to this reading room they had brought me to. There were officials from the seminary. They brought out this manuscript, in a nice mid-19th century binding, and on the cover it said, in French, “Original Manuscript of Beethoven.” It was not just a single sketch page, but as we now know, it was a big manuscript. I was very surprised at that point. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Q. How often do these manuscripts turn up?

A. Very seldom. The last big manuscript to be found in his own hand was the Op. 90 in E-minor, or Piano Sonota No. 27, which is about half the size of this manuscript. That turned up in 1990. There was also a movement in a string quartet that turned up about five years ago that would have been about 15 pages. But the big manuscript that turned up recently was a copious manuscript from the 19th century in which Beethoven had made a lot of entries, but was written mostly in somebody else’s hand. So that’s why I was astonished—most of these big manuscripts, people know where they are. They just don’t appear out of the blue like this. It was doubly amazing because at this seminary there had been a major find before, where a really important Mozart manuscript was found. You don’t expect lighting to strike twice.

Q. So how did you go about authenticating it?

A. When you authenticate manuscript, there’s a couple things you need to do. First, you have to know the composer’s hand. Because of the work I had done as a graduate student, and because I still have an avid interest, I know Beethoven’s hand like the face of my own son. So that was immediate: You open it up and there’s Beethoven’s hand. That was not difficult. You also have to be careful that it hasn’t been forged, and there’s a few other things you can check that a forger would have been unlikely to duplicate.

That’s where the study of paper has been helpful. Over the last 30 years, Beethoven scholars have amassed this enormous database of different kinds of paper he used at different times in his life. The other thing is the watermark. … You can hold the paper up to a light and see a pattern. These watermarks change in a predictable way, too.

Q. What happened next?

A. There were enormous sighs of relief around the room. The next issue was, “What do we do with it?” And so I helped them in the process of trying to figure out what should happen to the manuscript. For them, they don’t study music there, and they have financial needs, so the issue was, “How do we sell it?” It was pretty clear to me, and they agreed, that the one main auction house that sells these kinds of manuscripts, and would be the biggest market for the sale, would be Sotheby’s in London.

Q. What can you tell me about the piece? Is it something that most music afficionados know?

A. The piece is known, but it’s a funny piece. It’s known, but it’s not really known. At the end of his career, Beethoven was exploring new directions in his art, trying to experience different domains, and one thing he was focusing on was the string quartet as a genre that he might use to explore new stylistic possibilities. At the end of his life, he wrote five complete late string quartets, and one of them was the B-flat Major Quartet, Op. 130. He wrote his most radical piece from this late style as the finale. It was a big fugue—a fugue is a particularly intricate genre with different parts all playing versions of the same theme, and it’s a strict, severe form going back to Bach, and is the hardest to write in. A lot of composers thought of the fugue as a testing ground. And the fugue was thought to be too much for a string quartet. So Beethoven was pressured to write a more traditional finale for the string quartet and publish this big fugue as a separate piece.

Q. What happened when it was released as its own piece?

A. The Grosse Fugue was published as a separate piece, Op. 133. It was still thought to be just the most radical thing. But he wanted it to circulate more, and the way you did that in his day was to make arrangements for piano. He decided to write it for piano-four hands—that’s two players at the same piano—because of the complexity of the music. Originally he had a colleague do the arrangements, but he didn’t like it, so in the summer of 1826, he took on the task himself. … He wanted to turn it into a real piano piece, and the way you write for piano is different than the way you write for string quartet. He added some effects appropriate for the piano and he also kept composing a little bit. He was making a slightly revised version of the piece, changing some of the ways the parts related to one another, changing some of the dissonances, smoothing them out a little in some places. And that turns out to be why this is such an interesting manuscript. It had the evidence of him doing the composing—cross-outs, erasures, red pencil … It has all of these kind of things that give you a real visceral sense of what he was doing, moment to moment, as he was creating this piece.

Originally published on November 17, 2005