The Royal Philharmonic Society bust of Beethoven stood on the platform at every Philharmonic Society concert from 1871 onwards and can still be seen at RPS events as a symbol of musical excellence, creativity and support for the living composer.
The gift to the Society of Schaller’s bust of Beethoven, it’s arrival in London, and the idea of a gold medal to recognise music excellence are inextricably linked.
The Philharmonic Society celebrated the centenary of Beethoven’s birth in 1870 with a concert season featuring all the symphonies, culminating in a final concert on 11 July at which the Choral Fantasia and the Ninth Symphony were both performed. A bust of the composer was borrowed (probably 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, at the same meeting at which the testimonial was decreed, it was first 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, and one with a busy practice, providing dies for medals for a wide range of military and civilian organisations throughout the empire. He quoted for three different designs, and gave the cost of producing medals in gold, silver or bronze. His estimates arrived in time to be reported to the meeting of 27 July, the last before the customary summer and early autumn recess.
It was during that time that the letter of Mme. Fanny Linzbauer’s lawyer in Pest was written, offering the Schaller bust of Beethoven to be given to the Society in recognition of its "spontaneous acts of esteem and generosity" towards the composer. It arrived on 27 October.
The directors were unanimous in accepting the offer and the Secretary wrote early in November sending her copies of the programmes for the celebratory season just past. Though the Society’s schedule of events would not allow for a concert at the time of the great man’s birthday in December, the desirability of receiving the bust in time for the first concert of the next season, in March 1871, was stressed. Finally the Directors pledged themselves to protect the bust ‘with jealous care and allow it to be exhibited at the Concerts of the Society’. In January, whilst awaiting a reply to this letter, it was resolved to proceed with the medal scheme.
Then things moved quickly. Elischer’s reply stipulated that, rather than send the bust, Mme. Linzbauer would only deliver it 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 Hon. Treasurer and the Secretary. By 25 January he was in Budapest, having made the journey ‘without any difficulty, though trains were delayed on account of the conveyance of troops‘. By early February Cusins and the bust were back in London, and a telegram reporting its safe arrival had been sent to Mme. Linzbauer. The minutes report that ‘the Bust and documents of authenticity connected with it were examined by the Directors’.
It was at this point that it was decided to use on the gold medal an image of Beethoven derived from the bust: on 10 February 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 - the medal as it still is today.
The Directors lost no time in telling Mme. Linzbauer of this. She was truly devoted to the composer’s memory and bravely summoned up what 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, of course, 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 was in the programme. During the interval the Prince of Wales and others were shown the documents relating to the bust, and Mme. Linzbauer was sent two 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.’
[RPS MSS 284, 408, Egerton MS. 3812; Birket Foster, pp. 314-327]
RPS Honorary Librarian
Anthony Payne, composer: commissions include three orchestral works for the BBC Proms, and the internationally acclaimed completion of Elgar's Third Symphony.
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