A handwritten Beethoven score valued at up to £200,000 has failed to sell at auction, after a public row between music scholars over whether it was written in the composer’s own hand.
The manuscript for Allegretto In B Minor, thought to have been drawn up in 1817, had been described by Sotheby’s as having been penned by the German composer himself, but failed to find a buyer on Tuesday, after a leading expert said it “couldn’t possibly be [in] Beethoven’s hand”.
To compound the auction house’s embarrassment, it later emerged that its rival, Christie’s, had refused to sell the score last year, after being unable to confirm its authenticity – although Sotheby’s insisted they had been aware their competitor had taken a different view.
The scholarly dispute, which centred around the style of the composer’s musical notation, spilled out into the public domain when Barry Cooper, professor of music at Manchester University, took part in a bad tempered debate with Dr Simon Maguire, Sotheby’s director of books and manuscripts, on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Professor Cooper, a musicologist and Beethoven scholar, insisted that there were “several aspects which prove absolutely that it couldn’t possibly be Beethoven’s hand”.
The expert cited a number of notes that had been wrongly transcribed, as well as a variety of differences to the composer’s normal style of notation.
Referring to three so-called natural signs, which tell the reader to ignore instructions to play a note as either flat or sharp, the expert said: “The natural signs are completely different from any natural signs in any genuine Beethoven script.”
In response, Dr Maguire insisted that it “is more a matter of Prof Cooper misreading the manuscript than anybody else, let alone Beethoven”. He added: “I don’t agree with his analysis of what the manuscript says.”
The sheet music for Allegretto In B Minor bears an inscription stating that it was “composed and written by Beethoven himself,” in Vienna, in November 1817.