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This summer a librarian at a theological seminary outside Philadelphia made a startling discovery: a handwritten score by computer Ludwig van Beethoven. According to the auction house Sotheby's, the manuscript is a draft of the piano version of the composer's Grosse Fugue. The work is a milestone of Beethoven's career. The score went on display for the first time this afternoon, and Joel Rose of member station WHYY got a look.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

The 80-page manuscript reveals a composer who is revising constantly, even obsessively. There are smudge marks where Beethoven rubbed out the brown ink before it could dry and scratches where he erased notes with a needle. The red stains that look like lipstick are actually ceiling wax, which he used to paste in longer corrections.

Mr. STEPHEN ROE (Book Department, Sotheby's in London): Sometimes there aren't sufficient staves on the page, and so he writes in the margins, as in this case here. And when he gets more excited or when the music gets emotionally charged and loud, his notes get bigger and bigger and higher and higher up on the page.

ROSE: Stephen Roe is head of the book department at Sotheby's in London. He's made the trip here, to the Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the Beethoven manuscript was discovered in July. Roe says it includes other personal touches from the composer's hand.

Mr. ROE: Beethoven obviously played it himself because he's put in fingering to show how he wanted to play it, how he was perhaps trying to play it himself.

(Soundbite of piano music)

ROSE: How this manuscript ended up at a seminary in the Philadelphia suburbs is not entirely clear. The score was apparently part of a collection that was donated to the seminary in 1950. That collection also yielded manuscripts by Mozart and Haydn, which sold at auction in 1990. But the Beethoven manuscript remained at large, until now. Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood says the manuscript could shed new light on one of the composer's most important works.

Mr. LEWIS LOCKWOOD (Beethoven Biographer): Many of his manuscripts are very far from being just fair copies of his works. They are filled with corrections, changes, transformations of details that teaches a great deal about--let's call it compositional choices.

ROSE: Lockwood says Beethoven originally imagined the Grand Fugue as part of his String Quartet in D flat major. But when the work was first performed, reviewers panned it.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: One of them said that some of the movements of the piece were comprehensible. As for the fugue, it was regarded as totally mystifying, as he said, quote, "like Chinese."

ROSE: Critics at the time blamed Beethoven's deafness for the work's difficult harmonies.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Under pressure from his publisher, Beethoven agreed to remove the Grand Fugue from the quartet, but rather than let it disappear, Lockwood says Beethoven insisted on writing a four-hand piano version of the work. Eventually, Lockwood says, critics and audiences came to embrace the late string quartets, including this movement.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: The Grand Fugue, the most difficult work of all, remained at a great distance from public acceptance until probably the early 20th century.

ROSE: Lockwood says it's unlikely this new discovery will cause any radical changes in how we think about the composer. But Sotheby's hopes the highly personal nature of this manuscript will drive the price over $2 million when it goes on the auction block in December. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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