Book Review: 'Beethoven's Tenth' by Richard Kluger

Sep 18, 2018

Beethoven changed the course of music with his mighty nine symphonies. What would happen to music — and to the world — if the manuscript of a 10th symphony by Beethoven suddenly emerged from oblivion?

This question rises like a palimpsest on every page of Beethoven’s Tenth (Rare Bird Books, 2018), the musicological page-turner and whodunnit of the highest order by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-book-publisher-turned-novelist Richard Kluger.

A hapless American's discovery in a Zurich attic of what seem to be Beethoven's sketches for an unknown "dramatic symphony," and what appear to be letters related to the symphony among several individuals in Beethoven's sphere, bring about the efforts of fictitious Anglo-American auction house Cubbage & Wakeham to authenticate the documents.

Those efforts unleash a plot spiced with international intrigue at every turn and stuffed with enough red herrings to make a hearty stew.

Some of the principal characters in Kluger's yarn may seem, at first, affectedly euro-chic — the Anglo-Dutch musicology doctoral student and trust-fund baby who also happens to be fluent in five languages, the high-minded name partners in the transatlantic auction firm of Cubbage & Wakeham at the novel's epicenter, the laundry list of German-speaking classical musicians and musicologists — real and fictitious — freighted with the cultural baggage of honoring the great German symphonic tradition and mired in centuries of chauvinistic national interests.

Full book cover for Beethoven's Tenth by Richard Kluger
Credit Rare Bird Books / rarebirdbooks.com

But, veil by veil, Kluger removes the emperors' clothes, populating his novel with a cast of characters whose real-world grit gives the lie to the seemingly genteel worlds from which they come — from the seedy underbelly of the high-stakes art trade, from the emulous ivory towers of international-level academia, from the world of classical orchestral music, equally refined and, as evidenced by Kluger's characters, fatally flawed.

What results is a story of human genius and human foibles, of power and thwarted ambition, of honor and betrayal, of sanity and madness and, ultimately, of life and death.

In the middle of it all is the idea of a Tenth Symphony by Beethoven. This idea begs the question: Where might Beethoven, the all-time great innovator in the genre of the symphony, have taken the symphony had fate given him more time?

Composers in the generations immediately after Beethoven's death picked up the gauntlet he had thrown in the genre of the symphony and struck out in different directions.

Some, like Brahms, stuck to composing purely instrumental symphonies, even in the face of Beethoven's path-breaking addition of voices to the genre in the finale of his Ninth Symphony, but labored long and hard under what have been called the "imperatives of originality" they faced to contribute something new to the genre.

Other composers saw Beethoven's Ninth pointing to a new way of treating drama in the genre of the symphony and moreover saw that genre — which Mahler would famously claim must be like the world and "contain everything" — as a prime carrier of drama in music.

Berlioz was one such composer, who, as I argued in my Ph.D. dissertation Berlioz's 'Dramatic Symphony': Genre and Generic Mixture in Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette Symphony, created the then-new genre of the "dramatic symphony" from the inspiration of Beethoven's Ninth, and informed by other elements of his thinking about the state of opera as he knew it in 1830s Paris.

For Berlioz, creating the dramatic symphony as a hybrid genre in which voices and instrumental music convey drama in symphonic form without the need of the trappings of the theater was the solution to multiple aesthetic problems — how to go beyond what Beethoven had contributed to the genre of the symphony, and how to take the expression of drama-in-music to new heights.

Had Beethoven lived to compose an actual Tenth Symphony, would he have come to combine drama and symphony in a "dramatic symphony," as Berlioz ultimately did? One can't say for sure.

But, in light of Berlioz's creation of the dramatic symphony and the genre's following by other composers, including Cécile Chaminade and Jean-Georges Kastner, Kluger's fabrication of Beethoven's Tenth Symphony as a dramatic symphony is musicologically astute and more than makes up for the few small infelicities in historical fact and use of musicological terminology that appear in the novel's text.

Librarians can boast Joshua Hammer's non-fiction book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts as a real-life testament to their profession's enormous power to rescue and preserve priceless documents of the world's cultural patrimony.

In Beethoven’s Tenth, Kluger has given classical music lovers, musicians and musicologists a fun and spellbindingly written work of fiction that has the power to remind readers everywhere of the immortal Beethoven's real-life contributions and, in the end, of the immortality of music itself.