Piecing together Beethoven from 'sketches'

Late last month, a press release trumpeted news about an exciting new première Sept. 20: The "National Symphony Orchestra World Première of Beethoven's Overture to 'Macbeth.' "

In smaller print it added: "In the Sketch Realization by Albert Willem Holsbergen."

Washington Post music critic Philip Kennicott lashed out immediately. His angry-toned article explained that Beethoven never wrote an overture to "Macbeth," an opera project the composer contemplated but abandoned, and that only a few scraps of notes remain, not enough to assemble for an overture.

So what is being performed by the NSO Sept. 20 in Washington? A work by Albert Willem Holsbergen, a Dutch computer programmer and part-time composer. It will be the first performance of his work "based on Beethoven's sketches" by a professional orchestra.

The idea originated with a website (www.unheardbeethoven.org) that Mr. Holsbergen set up along with a Wisconsin lawyer and fellow Beethoven fan, Mark Zimmer. It offers MIDI files of rarely performed or fragmentary works by the early 19th-century luminary. After various chatroom discussions, Holsbergen decided to put together a "Macbeth" overture based on sketches Beethoven had left behind.

Although the overture is highly somber, the job was done good-naturedly, and on his website Holsbergen thanks his cat Peter "for graciously raising from the keyboard, thus allowing him to get on with the job."

In June, the resulting score was brought to NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, who says, "I felt the work had enough intrinsic merit and curiosity factor to warrant a performance."

Slatkin told the Monitor: "Mr. Holsbergen's obscurity is not so different from others who have completed works in the past. Very few people knew Anthony Payne, who recently put together the Third Elgar Symphony. Franco Alfano is only remembered for writing the second half of the third act of Puccini's 'Turandot.' The 10th Mahler [symphony] has been realized by no fewer than five different persons, none of whom are recognized as composers in their own right.

"This particular work has less information than the Mahler 10th, but more than the Puccini. It is certainly not a work by Beethoven, just as the 'Turandot' finale is not a work by Puccini."

The Dutch composer says he'd prefer the work to be billed as "Holsbergen (based on Beethoven's sketches)" rather than what the NSO calls it: "Beethoven (completed by Holsbergen)." Holsbergen suggests that the audience at the première "listen for 'Beethovenish' themes, if that interests them. Or perhaps to the overall architecture of the piece, or to the harmonies, or to how the emotional state evolves from one phrase to the next."

Despite the objections of the Post critic, many Beethoven fans may agree with Slatkin, who says, "I enjoy the speculative nature of these kinds of ventures. If there is some surviving [Beethoven] material, I would much rather know what might have been, rather than know nothing at all."

Slatkin is eager to see "if audiences feel the spirit of Beethoven or Mr. Holsbergen." Right now, no recording is planned of the overture, so the three performances Sept. 20, 21, and 22 may be the only occasions for audiences to judge for themselves.

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