THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

28 March 2017

Beethoven's tuning fork

Recently, we've been working hard to digitise autograph manuscripts relating to major composers found in our extensive music collections. These include a number of manuscripts in the hand of Beethoven, who died 190 years this week (26 March 1827).

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler 1820Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Amongst our digitised Beethoven treasures are the sketchbook for the Pastoral symphony (Additional MS 31766), sketches for the third and fourth movements of the Sonata in A major for 'cello and piano, op. 69 (Zweig MS 6), and the score for 'Der Kuss', op. 128 (Zweig MS 10).

We also hold a number of more unusual Beethoven-related items. His laundry list (Zweig MS 210) is featured elsewhere on this blog, and is complemented by a set of kitchen accounts (Zweig MS 209).
 
Zweig_ms_209_beethoven_kitchen_accounts_f001rBeethoven's kitchen accounts (before 1827). British Library Zweig MS 209, folio 1 recto
 
In addition, we are the proud owners of Beethoven's tuning fork (Additional MS 71148 A). But how did we come to acquire this unusual item?
 
In 1802, the virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860) travelled to Dresden. He gave concerts there on 24 July 1802 and 18 March 1803. These were so successful that, having obtained an extension of leave from his duties in England, he went to Vienna in April 1803.
 
In Vienna, Prince Lichnowsky, a Polish aristocrat and Beethoven's patron, introduced Bridgetower to the great composer. Beethoven  had already begun sketching the first two movements of what was to become the Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A opus 47, otherwise known as the 'Kreutzer' sonata. 
 
KreutzerlgeFirst edition of the Beethoven’s 'Kreutzer' sonata, opus 47. British Library Hirsch IV.287

The work received its first performance at a concert given by Bridgetower at the Augarten-Halle in Vienna on 24 May 1803, with Beethoven himself playing the piano part. Bridgetower's own memorandum of the event records an alteration he introduced in the violin part. This pleased Beethoven so much that he jumped up exclaiming "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once more, my dear fellow!"). He also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork. 

Tuningforklge
Beethoven’s tuning fork. British Library Additional MS 71148 A 
 
Documentation acquired with the tuning fork allows us to trace its history in more detail. It seems it passed from Bridgetower to one Ulysses Bolton, then from Bolton to Paul Waddington and then from Waddington to John H. Balderstone. Balderstone went on to give the fork to the composer Gustav Holst in 1921. Holst then passed it to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose widow, Ursula, went on to present it to the British Library in 1992.

The fork is preserved in a wooden box with walnut veneer. Tests have shown that it resonates at 455.4 Hertz, somewhat higher than today's standard of 440 Hertz.