Kluger, Richard. Beethoven’s Tenth. Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2018. 398 pages.
BOOK REVIEW – After nearly 200 years, Beethoven’s nine symphonies still stand as the greatest collection in this musical form ever written. For many, that is enough: nine magnificent pieces recognized as the ultimate achievement in the genre. For others, it is tantalizing to imagine the symphonies Beethoven might have written. After all, only 56 when he died, in his last years Beethoven had composed string quartets and piano sonatas of the finest quality and may well have been thinking about a new symphony during the last days of his life.
Richard Kluger’s Beethoven’s Tenth places a hitherto unknown Beethoven symphony in the year 1814, a year when the composer, then 44, was at the height of his fame. Although Kluger presents his thoughts about a Tenth Symphony in the form of a novel, there is enough verifiable musicological information in his storytelling to make his new book a compelling read not only for aficionados of well-structured mysteries, but also for well-informed musicians and music-lovers.
Beethoven scholars have established that while Beethoven lived in Vienna in 1814, his whereabouts during the summer months are pretty much unknown. Kluger speculates that Beethoven might have gone to Zurich seeking a cure for his increasing deafness.
While in Switzerland, per Kluger’s scenario, Beethoven composed a work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra that he called William Tell: a Dramatic Symphony. The text for this large-scale work was a play by Schiller, the same writer whose words Beethoven had set to music in his Ninth Symphony. Again, it is an established fact that sometime before 1814, Beethoven was asked to write incidental music for this play. Beethoven had declined, although its theme, which concerned the revolt of a proud people against foreign oppressors, very much appealed to him.
The problem was that the foreign oppressors in Schiller’s play were the Austrians. It hardly made sense for Beethoven to invite the wrath of the Austrian government while he was living under their noses and depending to some extent on the charity of their music-loving nobility. Kluger cleverly uses this explanation as the reason why Beethoven ultimately set aside his William Tell symphony and ordered it destroyed when he left Zurich at the end of the summer of 1814. In Beethoven’s Tenth, the original manuscript is re-discovered in the early 21st century; apparently, it had not been destroyed after all.
In this novel, the William Tell symphony comes into the hands of the Anglo-American auction house Cubbage & Wakeham, and much of the book is taken up with the firm’s attempts to authenticate the manuscript. A panel of Beethoven scholars is set up and ultimately declares the work to be genuine. Then the fun begins, as governments and family members squabble over the rights to the work and the millions of dollars that could be made from it at auction and from subsequent performances and recordings.
Kluger’s detective-hero is Mitchell (Mitch) Emery, a former prosecutor, recruited by Cubbage & Wakeham as chief investigator, in charge of coordinating authentication procedures for the firm. Emery’s first assignment is the authentication of William Tell. Conveniently, for the sake of the novel, his wife Clara is working on a doctorate in music at Columbia University, and predictably, she is recruited to assist him in the authentication process. Post-haste, the husband and wife detective team is off and running.
Some readers may find the first 100 pages or so of Beethoven’s Tenth a little tedious, as this part of the book is mainly concerned with sifting through both the known and unknown facts about Beethoven’s life and music. The pace quickens later on when several characters are murdered under mysterious circumstances, and Mitch and Clara run afoul of European law enforcement. Kluger takes his time early on introducing his main characters and setting up the context of his story; the discussion risks befuddling some readers and boring others, but most lovers of Beethoven’s music will be enthralled.
A newspaperman and editor most of his life, Kluger has also written no fewer than six novels, as well as several non-fiction books, one of which, Ashes to Ashes (about the cigarette industry), won a Pulitzer Prize. In Beethoven’s Tenth, this author has clearly done his research, rarely taking a wrong step musically, even though this is not one of his areas of expertise.
Beethoven’s Tenth is full of unexpected twists and turns and features a veritable rogue’s gallery of characters, any one of whom or several working together could have forged a hitherto undiscovered Beethoven symphony. But is it a forgery? At the end of the book Kluger ties up all the loose ends and identifies culprits, in the best tradition of great mystery writers. But then comes the “Coda” and one final twist to the story. Perhaps everything is not what it seemed.
This brilliantly researched novel will have scholars checking and re-checking what they thought they knew about Beethoven and his music, and mystery lovers delighting in the deftness of the plotting.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.