PRAGUE — A handwritten musical manuscript by Ludwig van Beethoven is being returned to the heirs of the wealthiest family in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia, whose members had to flee the country to escape the Holocaust.
The Moravian Museum in the Czech city of Brno has had the original manuscript of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major, op. 130 in his collection for more than 80 years. The museum put the sheet music on display for the first time this week before handing it over to its rightful owners.
“It is one of the most precious items in our collections,” said the museum’s curator, Simona Šindelářová.
The museum said a German Nazi-stolen property restitution law made the return possible. Details are unknown about how the family, whose wealth came mainly from the mining industry and banking in Central Europe, after World War I acquired the piece from one of the German composer’s last quartets.
“We are sorry to have lost him, but by right he belongs to the Petschek family,” said Šindelářová.
Beethoven composed the String Quartet in B flat major in six movements in 1825-1826 as part of his work on a series of quartets commissioned by the Russian prince Nicholas Galitzin. It premiered in March 1826 at the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, Austria.
Museums, archives and libraries in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland and the United States currently have almost 300 pages of the complete autograph in their possession.
Beethoven, who died in 1827, is known to have given the fourth movement to his secretary, Karl Holz, and at least two other private owners in Vienna acquired it before the Petscheks.
The family unsuccessfully tried to mail the manuscript abroad in March 1939 during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, which drew the attention of the Gestapo.
According to Šindelářová, the Germans asked a Moravian Museum expert at the time to verify that Beethoven had written the document, and “he denied it in an effort to save it” from the occupiers.
The lie could have cost him dearly, but it worked; the museum was allowed to keep the piece. However, the Nazis seized most of the Petschek family’s assets and possessions, which the communist regime in Czechoslovakia nationalized after the war.
From his new home in the United States, Franz Petschek, who had run the family’s mining businesses in Czechoslovakia, attempted to recover the piece but was unsuccessful due to the post-war division in Europe and the creation of the Iron Curtain.
The Moravian Museum signed an agreement on August 3 to transfer ownership of the manuscript to his heirs. However, other families with property claims and valuable items lost during World War II are still waiting for their cases to be resolved.
Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said that despite 47 countries agreeing in 2009 to try to address Holocaust-era injustices, “restitution of works of art that were looted often seems to be as distant a prospect as ever.”
“About 90% of all the art that families are looking for today has not been found or returned,” Webber said at a conference in Prague last month to review progress since the non-binding Terezín Declaration was adopted. .
The statement urged governments to do everything possible to return former Jewish religious and communal properties confiscated by the Nazis, fascists and their collaborators, and recommended that countries implement programs to address the problem of private buildings and land.
Video journalist Jan Gebert contributed from Brno, Czech Republic