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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
Clarke Carlisle
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'