‘10th Symphony’ Needs a Beethoven to Make It Work

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight and Thursday night, Keith Clark will lead the Pacific Symphony through Beethoven’s “Tenth Symphony.” Surprised that such a work exists? You’re not alone.

Actually, the work is not a full-fledged symphony. And no one says that it is really by Beethoven.

It consists of just one movement--lasting about 15 minutes--as reconstructed from the composer’s widely scattered sketches, fragments and jottings. It was put together last year by Barry Cooper, 39, a professor of music at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Cooper, who reportedly spent 5 years surveying 8,000 pages of sketches, maintains (in a statement distributed by the symphony) that “there is more than enough thematic material for the first movement in Beethoven’s sketches, so that a realization of it does not include any significant new motives, just developments, extrapolations and continuations.”


Still, critics reacted with caution at the work’s premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, directed by Walter Weller, on Oct. 18. (The U.S. premiere was given by Jose Serebrier and the American Symphony on Oct. 23. George Cleve and the San Jose Symphony offered the California premiere in November. There is a recording by Wyn Morris and the London Symphony.)

One London critic called it “a short-lived wonder which will disappear into justified oblivion.” Critic and scholar Andrew Porter, in the Nov. 28 issue of the New Yorker, agreed that the work is “unconvincing.”

“It is an essay ‘in the manner of Beethoven,’ which again and again bumps over the switches, lurches, noodles through development sections,” Porter wrote. “Some of it sounds more like Schumann imitation.”

One might well wonder: If Beethoven felt he had something left to say in a symphony, why--after finishing his monumental Ninth in early 1824--did he spend the rest of his life (2 1/2 years) writing only string quartets?

Still, as news spread of his final illness (he would die of jaundice and ascites on March 26, 1827), the Philharmonic Society of London sent him a get-well gift of 100 pounds. Touched deeply, he told the society that “sketches” for a Tenth Symphony were “already in my desk.”

After his death, though, his sketchbooks were ransacked by souvenir hunters and widely scattered, not to be re-collected until late in the 19th Century, and even then pages remained missing.

Scholars say fragments of many uncompleted works, including other symphonies, can be found among the sketches that survive.

It just takes a Beethoven to put them together.

Keith Clark will conduct Barry Cooper’s reconstruction of Beethoven’s “Tenth Symphony” tonight and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Also on the program: Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, with soloist Horacio Gutierrez , and Joseph Schwanter’s “New Morning for the World,” with text by Martin Luther King Jr . , narrated by baritone William Warfield. Tickets: $9 to $49. Information: (714) 556-2787.