Beethoven 10+1

Did the world really need a Tenth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven? Apparently so, says a British musicologist named Barry Cooper, and who’s to say he’s wrong?
Nothing would please me more, in fact, than to be able to greet this mangled, crippled, stillborn  product of Dr. Cooper’s fantasizing as the very Tenth we (some of us, anyhow) have so long awaited and prayed for. Alas, as a man of rock-ribbed conscience annealed in the crucible of a New England upbringing, I cannot. Last week in this space I cited this deformed monster     — recorded on a new MCA release by Wyn Morris and the London       Symphony Orchestra —   as the booby-prize entry among last year’s records; duty demands that I elaborate.
Out of Dr. Cooper’s imaginings, and founded on the flimsiest scraps of evidence, has come a single 15-minute symphonic movement, its musical substance vaguely reminiscent of other Beethoven scores (the “Pathetique” Sonata, for one). In a half-hour lecture that fills out the recording of this brief movement, Dr. Cooper ingratiatingly describes his source material: some fragments here and there in Beethoven manuscripts, some equally fragmentary references in letters to the existence of, or plans for, a possible symphony in the key of E-flat. Dr. Cooper talks in the genial, earnest style of your basic tweedy scholar; you have to listen fairly carefully to recognize the off-putting mix of fact and hoo-hah in his reasoning. At very least, he sounds like a man who desperately wants there to be a Beethoven Tenth; you end up profoundly sad that there isn’t.
And there isn’t. If the stitched-together pastiche were, indeed, an authentic Beethoven score, we would have to revise our estimate of the composer drastically downward. The timing is wrong; an idea with one sort of thematic potential is too often allowed in Dr. Cooper’s version to crawl ignobly under fences and land in alien territory. The noble Mozart once created a piece called “A Musical Joke,” which took off enchantingly and knowledgeably after amateur composers who, by starting phrases they cannot properly resolve, continually  paint themselves into corners. At least Mozart’s   inept village composers are comical; Dr. Cooper’s Beethoven isn’t even that.
The byways of music are cluttered with the scraps of projects begun and abandoned, sometimes for reasons easily discernible, sometimes not. Some composers — Brahms, for one — had the good manners to burn their abandoned manuscripts, thus denying to later scholars like Dr. Cooper the ghoulish pleasure of reassembling their bones. Franz Schubert, less tidy, began, but never completed, not merely one “unfinished” symphony but five or six, including one manuscript that he literally took with him to his deathbed. Why would he abandon such a considerable body of work, including the  B-minor symphony whose surviving, completed two movements are one of music greatest treasures? Probably because he needed money, and because he recognized that an unknown composer, still in his 20s, didn’t have the chance of a snowball in you-know-where to interest an orchestral management in music so bold, so advanced for its time. (Would a composer in Schubert’s situation be any better off today? You know he wouldn’t!)
In Schubert’s case we can fall back on these facts about his economic hardships to justify a certain amount of latter-day  tidying up of his abandoned material. In any case these surviving sketches, some of which have also now been pieced together into performable music, are the soul of coherence next to Beethoven’s henscratchings. We know, furthermore, that Beethoven’s creative method consisted of constantly reworking, revising, sketched material after it had been first written down; it’s fascinating, in fact, to follow the evolution of some well-known Beethoven themes from their clumsy first fashionings.
Thus, even if Dr. Cooper’s source material did come from Beethoven’s plans for a new symphony — and the matter is by no means clear — he has tried to evolve full-fledged organisms out of crude embryos, a feat both artistically and biologically impossible. (At that, some of his claims are. to say the least, suspect. He claims to have exhumed some 200 bars of authentic material from  Beethoven sketches — about 40 percent of the total work he has brought forward — but fails to note that several of these measures are actually second versions of first attempts.)
What disturbs me the most, in all of this, is the insidious mix of pseudo-scholarship and media hype that such projects engender. Musicology is a fragile science. At its purest, scholars huddle in dimly-lit rare-book libraries, poring over ancient codices and developing extended dissertations on, say, the symbolic intent of the recurrent E-flat in the 14th-century Belgian liturgy. At its liveliest, in contributes the valuable news about long-lost and important rediscovered music, such as all that new material in  Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” that greatly enhanced last fall’s production at the Music Center.
If Dr. Cooper had restricted his discoveries to finding a clutch of lost symphonies by, say, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, the musical world would have said “harrumph” and gone about its business. But Dr. Cooper has decamped on Beethoven territory, which is like setting up a burger joint in St. Peter’s Square, and it becomes incumbent for the musicologists of the world to clean out their own stables.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. I couldn’t advocate casting into limbo all existing latter-day completions of old-time incomplete scores, since that would lose us such honorable scores as Berg’s “Lulu” (whose last act was completed from an elaborate scaffold left by the composer) or Mozart’s Requiem (whose completion by Mozart’s pupil Sussmayr is beautiful but controversial). It would also lose us the undeniable, if far more questionable, attractions of a whole wad of Schubert completions by another British musicologist, Brian Newbould, which also have some musicologists up in arms.
I love the Newbould pseudo-Schubert — all recorded, by the way, on Philips, in rather frigid but clean performances by Neville Marriner and his Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields — in a way I cannot accept the Cooper Beethoven. At least they [ITALsound [ENDITAL plausible; Newbould has done his stitching on larger scraps of fabric and with stronger thread. His completion of the Seventh Symphony, from a sketch in which Schubert indicated at least one musical line in every bar of a large-scale four-movement score, gives us a clear picture of the young Schubert’s growing orchestral mastery. And that work from Schubert’s last days on earth, a three-movement score containing many holes in the outer movements, embraces a bleak, shattering slow movement that takes its composer to a peak from which a vast musical panorama comes into view, stretching from a deathbed in 1828 Vienna to the wild visions of Gustav Mahler eight decades later.
That work of Schubert, by rational listing, is also a Tenth Symphony. So you never can tell.

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