Newly 'Discovered' Beethoven Pieces Ignite Scholarly Debate

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A lost piano sonata! A forgotten string quartet! A tenth symphony!

Musicologists have long fantasized about uncovering lost works of the immortal composers. More than a few have made it their lifelong mission to assemble composer’s scattered sketches, fragments and jottings into complete, readily-to-perform musical statements. Add the name Beethoven to the mix and pulses really begin to race.

Last month, two newly-reconstructed Beethoven works were given what was billed as world premieres within weeks of one another: one is a two-minute hymn setting barely 74 measures long, performed in Manchester, England. The other is said to be the sketch of an early piano sonata, clocking in at 23 minutes. It was performed in Amsterdam and a commercial recording was made by Martin Oei, a 16-year-old piano wiz.

Both reconstructions gave Beethoven a rare bit of mainstream news coverage while raising questions about the unfinished material of deceased composers: can fragmentary thoughts yield genuine insights into a composer’s creative process? What are the ethics of completing and publishing unfinished notes and sketches? Can scholarship be reconciled with the desire to generate a buzz?

The newly-published sonata and hymn "are the latest examples of a long-standing trend to unduly exaggerate or misrepresent sources in an effort to grab media attention,” said William Kinderman, a musicologist and Beethoven scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He notes that when Beethoven died in 1827, the composer left a legacy approaching 8,000 pages of sketches as well as autograph scores and numerous fragments awaiting completion. "Their mere existence is no great secret.”

Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker, put it another way in a terse blog post: “Wouldn't it be great if the media were covering significant new works by living composers, instead of reporting the discovery of an exceedingly minor piece by Beethoven?”

Others believe that sketches, however fragmentary, can add to our knowledge of famous composers. Last month, Barry Cooper, a music professor at the University of Manchester in England, identified Beethoven’s aforementioned organ harmonization of a Gregorian hymn chant, called “Pange Lingua,” in sketchbook in Berlin. Discovered among some sketches for his Missa Solemnis, Cooper believes it was probably ceremonial music for Archduke Rudolph of Austria, and not, as some argue, a trial balloon for the mass.

Cooper says it also foreshadows the slow movement of Beethoven's Opus 132 quartet. "Beethoven is deliberately using this slow, solemn chorale-like style, which was the way hymns were sung in those days,” Cooper said. “What’s striking here is we have something similar right at the forefront of his mind, five years before he wrote that quartet.”

The hymn was given its premiere last month at the University of Manchester:

Cooper has mined similar territory in the past. In 1988, he assembled the so-called Tenth Symphony of Beethoven, after having spent five years surveying 8,000 pages of sketches. It is known from Beethoven's letters that the composer was working on a Tenth though some have found Cooper’s work speculative; no one knows for sure that the fragments assembled for this work were all intended for the same piece.

Kinderman called the Tenth Symphony a serious misrepresentation. “The result could have been entitled Fantasy by Barry Cooper based on Materials from Beethoven Sketchbooks,” Kinderman wrote in an e-mail. “However, since little attention would be aroused by a ‘Fantasy by Barry Cooper’ the disappointing product was instead (mis)labeled ‘Beethoven's Tenth Symphony,’ which it emphatically was not.”

Cooper responded: "I just said it was an impression of the Tenth Symphony" and it was not supposed to represent Beethoven's finished thoughts. He discusses the controversy further in this clip:

The Lost Sonata?

The case of the Beethoven Sonata Fantasia Op. 00 in D major is an equally fraught affair. The piece was likely written by the composer at age 22 in 1792 – a good three years before his first official sonata. Dutch musicologist Cees Nieuwenhuizen was behind the reconstruction of the piece, which existed as 1100 bars of patchy music in the "Kafka" Sketchbook, published in 1970. That publication has never received much attention in the news media.

William Meredith, director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, argues that the piece was so fragmentary that it’s not clear if it was even a sonata. “There are lots of places where there’s just a single line of melody – no left hand or right hand,” he said. “Figuring out what Beethoven would have done with those is beyond our ability.

“When I listen to the realization it doesn’t sound like a finished Beethoven piece. A lot of Beethoven scholars think you’re doing Beethoven a disservice by reconstructing them.”

In his liner notes to the recording on Zefir Records, Nieuwenhuizen writes that to make the piece playable he had to make “some well-considered decisions” involving filling in harmonies and incomplete parts. The composer’s other piano music was used as a stylistic guide. He calls the Sonata Fantasia “a fascinating link” in Beethoven’s early development and notes that once-incomplete works like the 12 bagatelles for piano have become repertory standards (that collection includes the celebrated Für Elise).

Meredith, of San Jose State University, believes debate will continue as more material sees the light of day. Among the forthcoming discoveries is an unknown string quartet contained in a sketchbook edition, edited by Kinderman. “Since more and more sketchbooks are being published, and more is known, this is going to keep happening for the next 30 or 40 years,” said Meredith.

Get a free download of the Andante from the Op. 00 Sonata Fantasia at the top of this page. Plus, tell us in the comments below, what do you think of reconstructions of Beethoven's incomplete works?