Elliot Forbes

Editor of 'Thayer's Life of Beethoven' and Fanny Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus at Harvard


Elliot Forbes, musicologist and conductor: born Cambridge, Massachusetts 30 August 1917; Professor of Music, Harvard University 1958-61, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music 1961-84 (Emeritus); married 1941 Kathleen Allen (three daughters); died Cambridge 10 January 2006.

No matter how modest your library of music books, the chances are that it will contain Elliot Forbes's edition of Thayer's Life of Beethoven - a pioneering piece of musicology from the mid-19th century in a magisterial enhancement by the musicological apparatus of the mid-20th. Forbes was as close to being an aristocrat as an American can be, and his work on Thayer has an aristocratic sweep that makes it both authoritative and highly readable - a cornerstone of the Beethoven literature and a model biography that set standards well beyond music.

"El" Forbes was discreet about his distinguished ancestors, as the pianist and composer Richard Wilson, when a student, was to discover on a visit to Forbes and his wife Kathleen:

When I was first in their dining room . . . I noticed a square piano. Not a common sight, at least to me, in 1960. "That was Emerson's piano," said El. It took some gentle prodding to discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson was his great-grandfather.

Not that one of America's most important men of letters was the only ancestor he didn't boast about, as Wilson further discovered:

I had always noticed an ancient telephone on the desk in his study. Puzzled by this, I asked Kay Forbes about it. "That was El's grandfather's phone." No further explanation. Some time later, staying in an upstairs bedroom, I noticed on a shelf a privately printed book on the history of the telephone company by William Hathaway Forbes. That's how I found out that El's grandfather founded the Bell Telephone Company with Alexander G.B.

Forbes was a Harvard man through and through, but that, too, may have been in his genes: his father, Edward Waldo Forbes, was professor of art history there and curator of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard; he also collected musical instruments - and Stravinsky was married at his farm.

After a classic Boston Brahmin education - Shady Hill School and Milton Academy - it was to Harvard that Elliot Forbes went as an undergraduate, taking a BA in 1941 (with the composer Walter Piston among his teachers), and also spending some time in 1937 at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He married Kathleen Allen, a graduate student of music at Harvard, immediately upon graduation.

Medically unfit for active service during the Second World War, Forbes taught music at the Cate School, Carpinteria, California, and then at Belmont Hill School, Belmont, Massachusetts, before returning to Harvard in 1945. It was now he could indulge what was to become one of his passions, conducting the Harvard Glee Club - a male-voice group which, founded in 1858, is the oldest college choir in the United States.

In 1947, with an MA under his belt, Forbes joined the staff of the music department at Princeton University, in a post-war intake that included what were to become some of the other major names in American musicology over the next half-century: Joseph Kerman, Edward T. Cone and Merrill Knapp. Forbes taught at Princeton until 1958, also conducting a freshman glee club that had been founded for him; thereupon he returned to Harvard and stayed for the rest of his career.

He took up the baton of the Glee Club again, and from 1958 until 1970 was active also as conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society, his conducting style mildly affected by damage suffered by his right arm when he had contracted polio in 1950 - he was one of the last people in New Jersey to be affected by the disease. In parallel with his conducting post he edited the scores published in the Harvard-Radcliffe Choral Music Series.

It was while at Princeton that the seed for Forbes's work on Beethoven was planted: Oliver Strunk, head of his department and doyen of American musicologists, had suggested that he might look at "Thayer" with a view to updating it. Alexander Wheelock Thayer - like Forbes, a scion of an old Massachusetts family and a Harvard graduate - had travelled to Germany and Austria in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, as journalist and diplomat, but also as the first man to try to compile a historically accurate biography of Beethoven.

Anton Schindler, Beethoven's amanuensis, had produced what was more a hagiography, treating Beethoven very much as the Romantic hero; when Schindler attacked a more realistic portrayal of the composer, Thayer smelled a rat and decided to seek out the truth. He talked to people who remembered Beethoven, transcribed his sketchbooks, consulted contemporary sources - not least the conversation books his friends used to circumvent his deafness.

Three volumes of Thayer's biography, translated into German, appeared between 1866 and 1879; with Thayer suffering from increasingly poor health, his translator, Hermann Deiters, then compiled volumes four and five from Thayer's material, but died before they could be published. The publishers Breitkopf und Härtel, who had acquired the copyright, then asked Hugo Riemann to revise and complete Deiters' work, the last volume appearing - still in German - in 1917. Henry Krehbiel then set up putting together an English edition from Thayer's original material and that appeared in three volumes, in New York, in 1921.

Forbes was faced with a daunting task. For Thayer's later volumes, his editors and translators had used not an established text but his research material - which went missing after Krehbiel's death. Forbes therefore compared the German and English editions to identify the text that was definitely by Thayer and to pinpoint the source material. He then worked through the Himalayan corpus of Beethoven research produced in the interim, to present as full a picture of the composer as possible, adding substantial passages of his own (always between identifying brackets). His aim, he explained in the 1964 first edition of his revision, was "to present Thayer's Life of Beethoven to an English-reading public as I believe he would have wanted it, using all the new research on Beethoven that Thayer would have used himself had it been available". The unassuming modesty of that statement belies the staggering amount of work Forbes put into the task.

Forbes wrote two more books, histories of music at Harvard up to and after 1972, edited Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for Norton's "Critical Score" series and contributed articles to publications including The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He continued to be a much-loved figure on campus long after his retirement as Fanny Peabody Professor of Music in 1984, which was marked by the publication of the collection Beethoven Essays.

By then, Michael Steinberg, critic of The Boston Globe, recalled, Forbes "had turned into a grey-haired eminence, though a very youthful one", with a "rich upper-class Boston accent ('Harvard' pronounced as though the first vowel were an 'a' with umlaut, and never an 'r' in the middle of a word - Mass pronounced 'Mahss')".

Forbes and his wife hosted musical evenings where Ellington and the blues would rub shoulders with madrigals.

Martin Anderson

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