The composer had plans to create 'a new gravitional force' in his 10th symphony. What wonders might he have written?
I'm just reading Gerhard von Breuning's Memories of Beethoven (originally published as From the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards), there's an account of Beethoven talking to Von Breuning's father, who was a close friend of the composer, about pieces he was planning to write near the end of his life. Gerhard was a child at the time, but he remembers Beethoven and his father Stephan regularly discussing "the artistic and financial success of his last two major works, the 9th Symphony and the Mass in D [the Missa Solemnis], plans for future compositions" – and get ready for those spines to tingle if, like me, you haven't come across this quote before! – "especially the form that he should give the 10th symphony he had in mind, [as Beethoven said] 'in order to create in it a new gravitational force,' this time without a chorus."
Boom. A new gravitational force? That's a truly mind-numbing idea. Even for a composer whose every previous symphony had taken music to places it had never gone before, the Einstein-prefiguring attempt to create a new kind of physical force in music is completely astonishing. It suggests that Beethoven realised, having in his Ninth represented in music humanity's entire history, from sonic chaos to an idealised realisation of universal brotherhood, he had to turn again to the substance, the time- and space-bending potential, of instrumental music in what would have been his 10th. Forget Barry Cooper's realisation of the sketches he left for this symphony, which cannot hope to reveal what Beethoven would actually have done in writing this piece, and imagine, instead what new regions Beethoven might have found. It could have been a synthesis of the new tonal territories and heightened discourse he was exploring in his last string quartets, but projected on a vaster, symphonic scale, or it could have been an extension of the visionary realms of the final piano sonatas, or – well, something else that only Ludwig van could conceive.
A couple of resonant connections across later centuries: Anton Bruckner was trying to find something similar in his 9th Symphony, and left much more of the finale than is usually supposed before his death in 1896. Simon Rattle has recorded the latest version of the finale with the Berliner Philharmoniker, revealing the gigantic structure that Bruckner found for what we should now think of as his most ambitious symphony; and talking of "new gravitational forces" reminds me of the kinds of polarities between pitches and textures that composers such as Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Boulez have created, and which Thomas Adès is exploring at the moment, as in his recent orchestral piece, Polaris, which is built on the magnetic forces he hears between notes and chords. But Beethoven would probably have gone further than any of them, if he had lived to finish his 10th. What a thought.
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