Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Final Resting Place of Beethoven's Biographer a Hard Shot to Come By

Thanks to a stranger's help in Italy, SJSU's Beethoven Center now has images of the musician's famed biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer's grave in Italy. Photo by Maria Neva Micheli

The anti-man-about-town has a long history of making mystical pacts with deceased authors at their gravesites. It usually goes along the lines of: "I'll keep writing, you just show me how to pay the bills." In fits of desperation, I have done this with Joseph Campbell, Hermann Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Leonard Cohen and a few others.

Although a recent attempt to track down Beethoven's first biographer, Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817 to 1897), in Trieste, Italy, was not successful, the whole ridiculous adventure ultimately confirmed that I have not wasted my life.

First things first: The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, aka the Beethoven Center, is loosely affiliated with the SJSU School of Music and Dance, my alma mater. By now, many have heard about the wealth of research materials, artifacts, original scores, instruments and selected resources included within the Beethoven Center's hallowed walls. It is just plain wunderbar that San Jose is home to such a facility, as Beethoven was quite a colorful and controversial character. Interest in his life and art should not be limited to music students, academics, blue-hairs, Rotarians or conservative old duffers. He was an irascible outcast, a natural genius, a revolutionary and a raging drunk. He would never survive today's music academia. They would throw him out of school in a heartbeat.

Thankfully, I did survive music academia, and I owe pretty much everything to the music department at SJSU. My professor Allen Strange was the one who put me on a path of international travel—I'd have wound up working in a record store otherwise—so I am driven to give back. That said, what the Beethoven Center didn't have were modern-day photographs of Alexander Wheelock Thayer's grave in Trieste, so when I recently visited the city, I took it upon myself to at least try and find the tombstone. What unfolded was a brilliant example of hospitality on the part of the locals.

Thayer lived in Trieste when it was still part of Austria and when he was the American Consul from 1865 to 1882. Abraham Lincoln appointed him. He worked tirelessly on Beethoven's biography, which oddly enough was translated into German and published in that language first. The complete English version was not published until decades after Thayer passed away.

To reach the graveyard, I left my hotel and hopped on the No. 10 bus at Piazza Tommaseo, directly across the street from the Adriatic Sea. Thayer was buried in the Evangelical Cemetery of the Augsburg and Helvetica Confession, one of several adjoining walled-off sections, each at progressively lower levels as they descended down a hillside, but all still near the main graveyard, the Sant'Anna Cemetery. Unfortunately, when I arrived in the late afternoon, the section containing Thayer was closed for the day and there was no way to get in. I had to fly back home the next morning, so there was no possible way to return.

The military section was the closest open area, located on the next upper level, so I walked in and spent a few minutes trying to scope a way into the evangelical section, if that was even possible. It wasn't.

Then I spotted a woman watering flowers. I scurried up and handed Maria Neva Micheli the information on Thayer, and between her English and my broken Italian, we were able to communicate. She directed me to the parking lot, where her husband, Loris Guarini, was sitting in their car. He didn't know how to access the evangelical section either, but they were both kind enough to drive me all the way around the entire graveyard complex to the main entrance to inquire at the front office. Still, there was nothing we could do. I was out of luck. Then, in a gracious act of hospitality, Micheli wrote down my email and said she would return at a later time, take photos and send them to me. Sure enough, a few days later, the photos arrived.

I relayed the images to the Beethoven Center, and they are now being considered for inclusion in a spring 2019 joint exhibit in partnership with SJSU's Steinbeck Center entitled, "Beethoven & Steinbeck: The Art of Biography." Bravissimo!