California’s third largest city, following Los Angeles and San Diego in population, is San Jose. Its cultural, artistic and entertainment venues encompass visual arts, theatre, ballet and special sites just for children.
The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, a small musuem, is tucked away on the fifth floor of the award-winning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library of the San Jose State University. It is located at South Fourth and San Fernando Streets, an area that boasts seven museums and art edifices within the downtown’s walking district.
Curator Patricia Stroh, M.A., herself an accomplished musician, calls this mecca for Beethoven aficionados a “hybrid” in that the museum display section is relatively small but as a library its contents are enormous. This is the only study and research center in North and South America devoted solely to the music, artifacts and ideals of the great composer.
Housed in this modest space is the largest collection of Beethoven materials outside of Europe. Included are first editions, original manuscripts, books and articles, recordings, a historical keyboard collection and hundreds of pieces of artwork, autographed materials, masks, sculptures, stamps, films – all sorts of things. The small museum store offers souvenir coffee mugs, scores and a bibliography database.
Visitors may be dedicated musicologists or casual tourists but all are treated with wonderful patience by staff and docents. The collection’s most famous object is the “Alfredo Guevara Lock of Hair.” Purchased at Sotheby’s, London in 1994 by four members of the American Beethoven Society, it is the subject of Russell Martin’s 2000 book, Beethoven’s Hair, as well as an award-winning documentary by Rhombus Media. Visit www.beethovenshair.ca/flash.html or www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/bh.html for details about the extraordinary odyssey of this lock of hair cut from Beethoven’s head right after his death (a common practice at that time). This snippet’s convoluted journey over the years to San Jose along with modern DNA testing of its properties has been compared in several ways to the type of intrigue described in The Da Vinci Code. A 2007 discovery by a Viennese doctor indicates Beethoven’s own doctor may have poisoned the composer by mistake with lead-tainted medicines and many questions concern the composer’s deafness and his overall health.
The historical keyboard collection, consisting of several instruments similar to the kind Beethoven played, includes a harpsichord, clavichord and fortepianos. Each sounds vastly different from the modern piano. One group of visitors claimed “goosebumps” when docent Mike Gee played part of the Moonlight Sonata as it probably sounded when the maestro created it. There are no old sound recordings available, nor does the center appraise, buy or sell Beethoven memorabilia, but there is much from which serious collectors can learn.
The American Beethoven Society, headquartered at the center publishes the The Beethoven Journal and sponsors The Young Pianist’s Beethoven Competition. Special events are regularly offered and individual or group tours, docent lead, are offered free of charge.
For membership and other information and to be added to the center’s e-mail list call 408-808-2058 or visit www.sjsu.edu/depts/beethoven. Hours are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Saturday 1-5 p.m.