‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ con­ducts a stir­ring mys­tery

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Chris Gray COR­RE­SPON­DENT Chris Gray is a writer in Hous­ton.

Imag­ine, just for a mo­ment, that a nearly il­leg­i­ble man­u­script pur­port­ing to be an em­bry­onic Beethoven sym­phony is found in a stuffy Swiss at­tic. Would the world sound an­other ode to joy, or would this im­prob­a­ble dis­cov­ery strike a sour note?

Af­ter all, it’s not like any­one can call up the long-dead mae­stro, or even a dis­tant rel­a­tive, and ask to look at a rough draft.

This tan­ta­liz­ing sce­nario plays out with gusto — or al­le­gro con brio, to use a more fit­ting term — in “Beethoven’s Tenth,” a new novel that proves in­ter­na­tional in­trigue need not be lim­ited to in­dus­trial es­pi­onage or fight­ing ter­ror­ism.

Cul­tural brag­ging rights, na­tional pride and naked greed also work just fine, danke schön.

Con­duct­ing this mag­num opus is au­thor Richard Kluger, whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude “Ashes to Ashes,” his Pulitzer Prize-win­ning study of the to­bacco in­dus­try; and “The Sher­iff of Not­ting­ham,” a novel that dares to say some­thing nice about one of English his­tory’s most dis­rep­utable vil­lains.

Un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, “Beethoven’s Tenth” might have in­stead come to life as an un­usu­ally sus­pense­ful doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion or a New Yorker ar­ti­cle gone amok. Kluger’s prose is that ex­act­ing, his re­search that metic­u­lous, his premise that be­liev­able. Only in the over­cooked di­a­logue of a few sec­ondary char­ac­ters — a con­ge­nial pro­fes­sor from Ken­tucky, a fuhged­daboutit hard­ware man from west Jersey — does the book sound a lit­tle flat.

Much of “Beethoven’s Tenth” takes place in Switzer­land, and per­haps not by ac­ci­dent. Its plot is as in­tri­cate as a $4,500 TAG Heuer time­piece.

It be­gins when Jake, the afore­men­tioned un­re­fined Amer­i­can, re­turns home from his grand­fa­ther’s fu­neral in Zurich with the al­leged Beethoven sym­phony, part of the de­ceased’s mea­ger per­sonal ef­fects. Al­most im­me­di­ately, ques­tions arise over whether the man­u­script was in­deed Grandpa Otto’s to give away — his well-to-do neigh­bors, the Erpfs, had long held a lien on the old man’s house. Ad­di­tion­ally, the black sheep of the Erpf clan, Ansel (a cel­list of some renown), seems to have played a sus­pi­ciously con­ve­nient role in the dis­cov­ery.

Back in New York, Jake de­cides to see what this so-called “dra­matic sym­phony” — based on poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 drama­ti­za­tion of Swiss folk hero Wil­liam Tell’s life, and cu­ri­ously sprin­kling op­er­atic vo­cal pas­sages among the score — might be worth on the auc­tion block.

En­ter Mitch Emery, the novel’s mild-man­nered but tena­cious hero.

Of solidly mid­dle-class Min­nesotan stock, Mitch is a for­mer as­sis­tant prose­cu­tor and in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter who has lately been in­stalled at bou­tique New York auc­tion­eers Cub­bage & Wake­field — smaller and more dis­crim­i­nat­ing, and thus less likely to be tarred by scan­dal, than Christie’s or Sotheby’s — in the be­spoke po­si­tion of chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

His blue­blooded but pro­fane boss, Harry, is im­pressed by Mitch, but the younger man hasn’t yet fully demon­strated he be­longs in his new job. When the Beethoven drops into Mitch’s lap, he must not only co­or­di­nate a com­plex ver­i­fi­ca­tion process for the man­u­script — which in­volves fly­ing in a panel of the world’s top Beethoven ex­perts — but fight off var­i­ous Euro­pean govern­ment of­fi­cials who in­sist the dis­cov­ery is their home­lands’ right­ful prop­erty.

It’s not hard to see why. Suc­cess­ful ver­i­fi­ca­tion could be seis­mic, both cul­tur­ally and mon­e­tar­ily. But if the sym­phony turns out to be a fake, Cub­bage & Wake­field could eas­ily be ru­ined.

As the ev­i­dence mounts, the man­u­script be­gins to seem more and more kosher. Then the real trou­ble starts.

Help­ing Mitch is his prag­matic, Bri­tish-born wife, Clara, a mu­si­col­ogy grad stu­dent at Columbia Univer­sity. It first falls to her to de­ter­mine if this nearly in­co­her­ent doc­u­ment could plau­si­bly be the work of Beethoven, and if so, if it’s a true mas­ter­piece or some­thing de­cid­edly more run-of-the-mill. Their in­ves­ti­ga­tions push the cou­ple into en­coun­ters with a lively sup­port­ing cast, in­clud­ing Gordy Roth, C&W’s shrewd chief coun­sel; Lolly, Harry’s boozy but well-mean­ing wife; Emil Reins­dorf, the world’s lead­ing Beethoven scholar (and a Class A snob); and haughty, doomed Ansel.

Best of all is In­ter­pol op­er­a­tive turned mys­te­ri­ous pri­vate eye “Johnny Winks,” whose ev­ery ap­pear­ance feels like Gra­ham Greene’s ghost just brushed the page.

The struc­ture of “Beethoven’s Tenth” feels, well, sym­phonic. Like one of the mae­stro’s bold melodies, Kluger spins a sim­ple mo­tif — is this so-called “Wil­liam Tell Sym­phony” real Beethoven or not? — into a dizzy­ing ma­trix of over­lap­ping mo­tives, dou­ble deal­ing, mu­sic his­tory, shad­owy op­er­a­tives and far-fetched but un­canny the­o­ries about this shad­owy opus’s ori­gins.

The cli­max makes for quite a crescendo, no easy feat for a novel whose theme is the ten­u­ous bound­ary be­tween great art and art­ful forgery, ge­nius and fraud. As Os­car Wilde said (ex­cept he prob­a­bly didn’t), “tal­ent bor­rows, ge­nius steals.”

Like­wise, it’s tes­ta­ment to Kluger’s con­sid­er­able skills that the ul­ti­mate fate and au­thor of the “Wil­liam Tell Sym­phony” are al­most be­side the point. Let’s just say read­ers who get swept into the story may come away hanker­ing to give Rossini’s fa­mous “Wil­liam Tell” over­ture a fresh lis­ten or two.

Con­trib­uted photo

Did Lud­wig van Beethoven re­ally com­pose this newly dis­cov­ered sym­phony?


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