Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Biographer Spent Decades Poring Over Beethoven's Life

A new exhibit at the MLK Library details how Alexander Taylor used his diplomatic position to further his Beethoven research.

Back in the good old days when broke freelance writers became U.S. diplomats, Abraham Lincoln sent Alexander Wheelock Thayer to the Austrian port city of Trieste to work as the U.S. Consul General. By the time Thayer started his official diplomatic mission on Jan. 1, 1865—a post he would hold for almost 18 years—he was already decades into a research project on Ludwig van Beethoven.

Thayer would eventually become the first writer to produce a reliable biography of the irascible composer, which is why a new exhibit, The Art of Biography: Beethoven and Steinbeck, just opened in the Martin Luther King Jr., Main Library. Organized by two SJSU institutions on the library's fifth floor, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, the exhibit celebrates Thayer's life as well as that of Steinbeck. In the latter case, a new Steinbeck biography, written by William Souder, Mad at The World: John Steinbeck and the American Century, is in the works. Souder will keynote the upcoming 2019 Steinbeck Conference at SJSU May 1 through 3.

Since Steinbeck is more than well known, I will fixate on Thayer for the moment. The Art of Biography, while not a museum-quality exhibit by any stretch, presents a wonderful selection of documents, photographs, letters and even Thayer's original uniform from his U.S. Consul days in Trieste, shedding light on a relatively unknown yet fascinating character. Thayer was literally obsessed with Beethoven's life.

Born in Natick, Massachusetts, Thayer attended Harvard, where his work as an assistant librarian fueled his passion for books and historical research. After graduating with three degrees, he decided to fully investigate Beethoven's life. In 1840, when Thayer was in his early 20s, Anton Schindler published his own biography of Beethoven, riddled with what Thayer already knew to be inaccuracies, so at first Thayer merely wanted to set the record straight and produce a more scholarly work than the one produced by Schindler. Over time, however, this pursuit blossomed into a lifelong project that was both a magnificent obsession and a health-damaging burden.

In the exhibit, we get maps detailing three research trips Thayer made to Europe beginning in 1849. He crisscrossed the continent, tracing Beethoven's life, and by 1862 had already settled there permanently. His diplomatic life began as an assistant to the U.S. diplomatic minister at Vienna, where he lived for three years. In 1866, just after his appointment to Trieste, the first volume of Thayer's Beethoven biography appeared, albeit translated into German, followed by volume two in 1872 and volume three in 1879. At this point, he was suffering from terrible migraine headaches and could not complete the fourth volume. After retiring from the diplomatic corps, he died in Trieste in 1897. It would be another 25 years before the complete biography was published in English.

Thayer was also a traveling journalist who reported on musical activities in Europe for several publications back home, including the Cambridge Chronicle and The New York Daily Tribune. He also wrote for Dwight's Journal of Music, a highly regarded journal of the time, submitting diary-style columns detailing numerous experiences at home and abroad. Even though his byline appeared in a variety of places, his freelance career was never lucrative and he never made a dime writing his biography of Beethoven, once it was published.

As always, the stories behind the collections are even more enlightening. For example, the Beethoven Center recently acquired a significant collection of over 200 items from Thayer's descendants, including his uniform from when he served as US Consul to Trieste. We see it on display, including the jacket, pants, gloves, hat and a sword with two ornamental mother-of-pearl pieces on the handle.

We also see correspondence from 1965 between Thayer's descendants and the American consul in Trieste at the time, regarding the state of Thayer's gravesite. The lease on the plot had long since expired, and everyone had forgotten the grave was there until a former consulate employee rediscovered it. Thayer's great-niece, Mrs. Gertrude Behr, had to wire a bank draft of $130—equal to 80,000 Italian lire—so the cemetery could rebuild the monument and properly display it.