In tribute to the Society's close association with the composer, the RPS bust of Beethoven stood on the platform at every Philharmonic Society concert from 1871 onwards. It can still be seen at significant events as a symbol of enduring musical excellence and the Society's ongoing, evergreen support for composers.
The gift to the Society of Schaller's bust of Beethoven, its arrival in London, and the idea of a Gold Medal to recognise musical excellence are inextricably linked.
The Philharmonic Society celebrated the centenary of Beethoven’s birth in 1870 with a concert season featuring all his symphonies, culminating in a final concert at which the Choral Fantasia and the Ninth Symphony were both performed. A bust of the composer was borrowed (most likely from the Crystal Palace) and placed in front of the orchestra, and the Society’s conductor W.G. Cusins was presented with a testimonial of thanks inscribed on vellum.
The Directors were fired with enthusiasm. Five days after the concert, it was suggested that a medal should be struck in honour of the centenary ‘for presentation to artists of eminence who have assisted or might assist the society’. It was also suggested that Cusins should be among the initial recipients.
The Directors turned to Leonard Charles Wyon, member of a prominent family of engravers. He quoted for three different designs, and gave the cost of producing medals in gold, silver or bronze.
It was at that time that a letter from the lawyer of Madame Fanny Linzbauer came from Pest, offering the Schaller bust of Beethoven in recognition of the Society's "spontaneous acts of esteem and generosity" towards the composer. It arrived on 27 October.
The Directors were unanimous in accepting the offer and were keen to receive the bust in time for the start of their 1871 concert season. At the same time, it was resolved to proceed with the medal scheme.
Rather than despatch the bust by courier, Linzbauer insisted on delivering the treasured cargo directly into the hands of some person officially connected with the Society. The indefatigable Cusins volunteered to collect it himself, and set off armed with a letter of authority signed by the Society's Honorary Treasurer and the Secretary.
It was at this point that it was decided to use on the gold medal an image of Beethoven derived from the bust: in February 1871, Wyon noted that he had produced the die for the medal with a portrait of Beethoven on the obverse and a wreath and inscription on the reverse - precisely as the RPS Gold Medal remains to this very day.
The Directors lost no time in telling Mme. Linzbauer of this. She was truly devoted to the composer’s memory and summoned up what modest English she could to express her feelings, resulting in a letter of great charm:
‘To take the bust as effigie for mint in celebration centenary to employ it for giving a prise, is a very noble idea of Lords Directors. This mind is greatly English.’
She and Cusins were duly among the first recipients of the Gold Medal.
The bust was placed on the platform at the first concert of the season, 8 March 1871, and, as the donor requested, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony featured in the programme. During the interval the Prince of Wales and others were shown the documents relating to the bust, and Madame Linzbauer was sent two souvenir copies of the programme specially prepared for the royal party. She died less than two years later. During her final illness she wrote:
‘What I silently carried in my heart, has become great, and England will ever be considered the highest and best friend of that man, who was so much distinguished by nature.’
Dame Janet Baker CH DBE, legendary mezzo-soprano: awarded RPS Honorary Membership in 1987 and the RPS Gold Medal in 1990
DID YOU KNOW?
The early directors and concert conductors were given tickets made of ivory to gain them admission to Philharmonic Society performances.