On Music

Unfinished? Don’t start!

A new project to restore Beethoven’s incomplete symphony borders on pathological necromancy

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The attempt to manufacture a tenth Beethoven symphony by means of Artificial Intelligence has proved about as intelligent as cloning Albert Einstein out of paper from his wastebasket. 

The outcome, 21 minutes long, is performed on YouTube by the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn. It welds fragments of a discarded project onto bits of other symphonies in a manner so uninspiring that it reduces Beethoven to the level of a Hummel. The work’s opening, a student-essay paraphrase of the fifth symphony, is all you need to hear. 

The rest just gets worse. What possessed the brains of Bonn to think they could create a Beethoven symphony ab virtually nihilo? Probably the thought that fellow-necrophiles had done such things before.

Nobody bothered with unfinished music until Mozart died in December 1791. His widow, Constanze, put about a story that he had been writing a deathbed Requiem for a mysterious hooded man, knowing full well that this was the wealthy Count von Walsegg. Fearing he would not pay up for less than a full Mozart Requiem, Constanze had the work completed by Mozart students, mostly by Franz Xaver Süssmayr with whom she was especially close. 

Süssmayr raided early Mozart masses for the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, Constanza faked Mozart’s signature and the Requiem was delivered to Walsegg in February 1792. It was well received and widely performed, at least until the late 1960s when “historically informed” conductors stripped off Süssmayr’s accretions and were left with archaeological shards.

Some of this morbid hyperactivity verges on pathological necromancy

The next grave raid came in 1928 when Columbia Records called for a centennial completion of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Hundreds of submissions flooded in, some from eminent composers. The $10,000 winner was a Swede, Kurt Atterberg, who later reused the music in his own sixth symphony, known as the Dollar Symphony. Schubert’s Unfinished still stands on its own two legs. A 2019 Huawei completion by AI was trashed as trivial at its London premiere.

Completionism gathered steam when a BBC man, Deryck Cooke, fleshed out a tenth symphony by Gustav Mahler in 1960 from facsimile sketches published by his widow, Alma. So moved was Alma by the broadcast performance that she produced more sketches, allowing Cooke to make a powerful score for Berthold Goldschmidt to premiere at the 1964 Proms. 

Reactions were antipodal. Mahler’s apostle, Bruno Walter, denounced the score unseen and the International Gustav Mahler Society pronounced a global ban. Leonard Bernstein refused to look at it. Mahler enthusiasts, on the other hand, were thrilled and many set out to improve on Cooke. There are now 13 published versions of Mahler’s Tenth. Not only does the work exist, it offers essential insights into the composer’s mind in his final year.

The next completion was Anton Bruckner’s ninth symphony, which lacks a finale. The love of Bruckner is confined mostly to German-speaking lands, but the urge to complete was universal. An American, William Carragan, produced a finale in 1983, revising it in five editions. 

Other contenders were a Belgian, a Dutchman, three Italians and an Austrian. The symphony is generally performed in Bruckner’s three movements, though each of these now has five editions. Confused? You should be. Some of this morbid hyperactivity verges on pathological necromancy.

Creating an ending for two operas was less problematic. The premiere of Turandot was halted in the middle of the third act by Arturo Toscanini, who refused to go further than Puccini’s last note. A frugal ending by Franco Alfano is mainly used; a tweak by Luciano Berio has not caught on. In Alban Berg’s Lulu the lubricious third act was suppressed by his prudish widow for 40 years. Friedrich Cerha’s 1979 conclusion seems to work pretty well.

It is no surprise that these finite minds made porridge out of Beethoven

The most intrusive intervention was the BBC’s 1998 sponsorship of the composer Anthony Payne to “elaborate” on autograph sketches for a third symphony that Edward Elgar, on his deathbed, asked to be burned. In an art that claims to follow a composer’s wishes, this outright violation was serenaded by the great and good. The Times hailed the score as “a landmark in the history of British music”. The leader of the Conservative party said, “they were definitely right to do it”. The Elgar/Payne exhumation had a hundred performances in a couple of years, and very few since. 

Which brings us to the Beethoven shambles. Beethoven was writing two symphonies while he completed the Ninth; the lesser one just fell to the wayside. Sketches of 250 bars were stitched together by an Aberdeen musicologist, Barry Cooper, and premiered in 1988 on London’s South Bank and at Carnegie Hall, as well as being recorded twice. My reaction at the time was: why bother? Apart from an opening that harked enigmatically back to the bifocality of the eighth symphony, this score was going nowhere, very slowly.

The 2021 effort was compiled by data scientists, musicians and musicologists under the aegis of the Beethoven-Haus. The lead scientist was Ahmed Elgammal, Director of AI at Rutgers University; music advisors included the director of Salzburg’s Karajan Institute and the Harvard pianist Robert Levin. 

Given that an infinity of monkeys has yet to write Shakespeare, it is no surprise that these finite minds made porridge out of Beethoven. Everything in this lumpy dish regresses. Beethoven’s signature style, his urge to innovate, is painfully absent. 

I have spent the past two years immersed in writing a book about the man and his music. Beethoven’s most appealing feature is his progressive impetus, his need to flout precedent, to prick the pompous and kick the fools. The new AI confection is made by ticking digital boxes. It is worse than bad Bonn-bons. It is sickeningly anti-Beethoven.

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