Interesting Things I Forgot To Post: Visiting Beethoven

This is the first in what I hope is a continuing series of Interesting Things I Forgot To Post – trips and stops and things that happened this year that I thought, “I should post about this,” but never seemed to get to.

This past summer, the weekend we went up to San Jose and Santa Cruz for Cori’s wedding was also fairly close to my birthday and The Beloved had scheduled a special treat for me: a visit to the Ira Brilliant Center For Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.

1820s Grand Piano

1820s Grand Piano

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know that me and Louie (as he was often called during his life) go way back and so a chance to get to visit the university’s Special Collection was a real treat.  They had several original manuscripts and scores (messy, clearly Beethoven needed Finale), instruments of the period including pianos and other keyboards from the 1820s (maybe I need a clavichord or harpsichord?), and a whole bunch of paraphernalia from his life and era.

Penmanship Not A Strong Suit

Penmanship Not A Strong Suit

That's a Lot of Pedals

That’s a Lot of Pedals

I have to admit that I was a little too intimidated to play the instruments when the docent offered them to me. Swing and a miss by me, in retrospect. The Center also had a display that contained – and I’m not making this up – a lock of Beethoven’s hair. Yes, eww. But apparently, that was a thing back before you know, you could take a picture. Actually, there was a Beethoven death mask there, too, ensuring the hair wasn’t lonely in its creepiness.



The cool thing about the hair though was that a few years ago it was tested for lead levels (lead gets incorporated into hair readily as it grows and provided a lead-based timeline on the composer’s last weeks) and matched to visits by his physician. Apparently, his doctor was unwittingly poisoning him with his “medicine” — so that was a very cool intersection of history and modern analytical chemistry techniques.

Lead Levels (upper left) and Hair (upper right)

Lead Levels (upper left) and Hair (upper right)

If you are a Beethoven or Classical music aficionado and find yourself around the San Jose region, I highly recommend arranging a few hours to poke and plink around the Center.


14 thoughts on “Interesting Things I Forgot To Post: Visiting Beethoven

  1. Wow, if I’d known about that when I visited San Jose, I would have gone! I’d be intimidated by an offer to play the antique instruments—I can play, but don’t practice, and would pretty much look like an oaf.

    • Phantom-xii — I was really afraid of looking like a dope sitting down — and of course, had a brain freeze when I thought, “what could I play without the music in front of me that doesn’t sound like a cat walking across the keyboard?” After the fact, I thought of several things, but not right there.

  2. There’s a Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose? I’ll be gobsmacked. I would have expected something like that in Germany, not in the heart of Silicon Valley. Do they sponsor concerts at all, or performances of Beethoven’s lesser-known works?

    [Shakes finger.] You must get over your timidness at playing in front of people so you can give yourself the opportunity to play on beautiful instruments like the ones at the center. A friend who has kept up her violin playing over the years told me there is nothing like the experience of playing an old and artfully crafted instrument. She was once allowed to play a Stradivarius, and she said it was like standing in the shoes of all the great violinists that ever lived. It was humbling and elevating all at once.

    I’m not creeped out by the hair of the Master, but seeing the death mask was ew. I get that there was no photography back then and it was the last chance anyone would have to get his exact likeness. Still, it would have preferable if some great painter like David or Gainsborough managed to get Louie to sit down for a portrait. :)

    • HG — The Center originated out of the donation of a private individual who’d amassed a large Beethoven collection privately. He’d wanted to see it established at a University and SJSU ponied up the space and support in a way that he liked. I’m sure there are many more centers like it throughout Europe. We wanted to see one in Berlin when we were there several years ago, but didn’t quite get to it.

      I know — I know. I really should have tried to sit down and play, but I’ve always been awfully terrorized by performance. I know it’s something that I should get over and that the only way to get over it is to DO it, but I can give a scientific talk in front of hundreds without batting an eye, but make me play the piano in front of 2 strangers? My hands shake like butter.

      • Piano teacher? Recital? I think the reason my kids do well at performing on stage is because they were forced by their teachers to play in recital. One thing I will sympathize with however, is that pianists almost always have to play alone. If you play a string instrument, you’re usually in a quartet or orchestra, which helps with the stage fright. But playing a piano—I remember the dread I felt at recitals. It may have been a character-building exercise, but I can still remember the agony of waiting my turn on the stage. And the other students always seemed better than me, even though my teacher assured me I was at the same level. :(

          • We must have used the same beginner’s book! I remember the Black Cat Tango. I think I played the Goosey Gander March. (Don’t remember what it sounded like. Don’t want to. *shudder*)

        • HG — my piano teacher doesn’t usually force me to play in recitals as an adult student — though sometimes she is more “encouraging”, but it really has turned out that the last few years we’ve been on vacation when she’s had one.

  3. That pedal photo is just beautiful – isn’t it amazing how instruments can both sound beautiful and be a work of art? Or maybe…..a work of craft. I would have been reticent to play it too. Way too much pressure.

    Didn’t Mozart die of some “medicine” he was taking for a fever? He was chronically ill anyway, I know.

    And yes, lousy penmanship! But do people even do cursive anymore? My Grandma taught me that plus calligraphy. I think it should be taught in schools. Don’t ask me why. :)

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