‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ conducts a stirring mystery
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.
Did Ludwig van Beethoven really compose this newly discovered symphony?