BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Saturday, May 18, 1822

A new publisher enters the field, as Leipzig bookseller Carl Friedrich Peters (1779-1827) writes to Beethoven today. Peters had bought out Kühnel & Hoffmeister’s Leipzig music publishing business, called Bureau de Musique, after Ambrosius Kühnel’s untimely death in 1813. Although Bureau de Musique had published some Beethoven works under the prior operators, none had to this date been acquired by Peters. Under Peters’ supervision, the first complete editions of the works of Bach and Haydn were published. The company still survives today.

Portrait of C.F. Peters, oil painting by an unknown artist.

In the letter, filled with casual anti-Semitism, Peters introduces himself, and states his purpose of publishing excellent works in beautiful, correct editions. While he is “in close contact with most of our respected artists… I’m becoming more and more aware of the gap I have remaining, so long as I can’t count you among them.” He had seen Beethoven’s works recent works only offered to the Viennese publishers, and out of respect for them he had not forced the issue.

However, he says he has learned that Beethoven is now having his compositions “published outside of Vienna, and you are even giving such to the Jew Schlessinger [sic]. If this Jew who is not respected anywhere gets your works, then it would be foolish for me not to curate your works.” He does not expect the Viennese publishers will be angry, but will instead be happy if it means Beethoven’s works are withdrawn from Schlesinger. “That Jew is unbearable to everyone, and in fact by right all of your admirers will be happy if your works appear with me in better editions than the Berlin ones [of Schlesinger.]”

So Peters asks that Beethoven also send him any new compositions. “Since all the composers I deal with are always satisfied with me, I can assure you that you will be too. Whatever a publisher may do to comply with the author’s wishes, I shall certainly do.”

By way of recommendation, he notes he has spoken with Beethoven’s publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner, who encouraged Peters to approach Beethoven, especially if Peters were to receive new works in place of Schlesinger:

“I wish you to take my request favorably, and that it will be successful. Once you have gotten involved with me, you will certainly stay with me and abandon Schlessinger. In any case, do me the favor of a few lines to let me know what I have to hope for, which I will gratefully recognize.”

This letter was for over a century known only from a summary published by Beethoven biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer. However, the original manuscript now resides in the archives of the Vienna Beethoven Society. Beethoven typically did not retain letters sent to him, so the survival of this one (and others received from Peters) indicates that he placed some significant importance upon it. It seems probable that this retention was due to brother Johann becoming more involved in Ludwig’s business affairs.

But one can only wonder what Beethoven’s immediate reaction was to this rather scurrilous letter when he received it; Schlesinger had been one of the few publishers reliably buying works from him in recent years, and he always paid. They had not long ago concluded a deal for the Missa Solemnis, though Beethoven still was not quite finished with the work. But the timing was certainly bad for Schlesinger to have recently switched, over Beethoven’s protests, from payment by drafts at sight to drafts payable only after four weeks. Beethoven had also been unsuccessful in his efforts to convince Schlesinger to pay in advance for the Mass on the promise that it would be delivered soon. Likewise, Beethoven complained about the many uncorrected errors in Schlesinger’s first printing of piano sonata #30 in a letter of November 14, 1821, although Beethoven also recognized that he owned some of the blame by not having a proper copy made of his autograph score before sending it to Berlin. Beethoven will share Peters’ missive with brother Johann, and they will discuss how to respond. A primary task will be compiling a price list of works (completed or not) that would be available to sell to Peters. This price list will occupy Beethoven during the rest of the spring of 1822 as he mines his old sketchbooks for possible materials.

His statements in the letter notwithstanding, Peters’ plan for approaching Beethoven about publishing some of his works had in fact been percolating for at least four years. Beethoven’s friend Johann Andreas Streicher wrote to Peters in April of 1818, apparently in response to a feeler about Peters publishing Beethoven works. Streicher told Peters he would need to be able to answer forthrightly what he would pay Beethoven for a piano sonata, a trio, or a quartet, and what he would pay for a symphony or other large-scale work. Streicher also put the idea to Peters of publishing Beethoven’s complete works in one collection. Streicher, however, cautioned that in dealing with the mercurial composer he could promise nothing. “I cannot give you the slightest hope of any happy success. But Beethoven is always worth asking, and one cannot succeed without trying.” The original of Streicher’s letter is held by the Bonn Beethovenhaus, BH 225b.