Beethoven’s Last Christmas

Written by Richard Murison

In 1825 and 1826, Ludwig van Beethoven was nearing the end of his life. He had fallen ill, was bedridden for over a month, and clearly felt his end was near. But he recovered, and almost in a spirit of gratitude for having being spared, set about composing his Late String Quartets, Nos. 13 – 16, including the Große Fuge, his last known composition. These extraordinary works are widely considered to be among the greatest compositions of the classical period, yet left the wider audiences of the day confused and bewildered. Even so, Schubert himself asked for the Große Fuge to be the last musical work he heard. It duly was … and he declared: “After this, what else is left to be written”.

Following this creative spurt, Beethoven took ill again in December of 1826, and remained weak and bedridden until he passed away on March 26th. This, in summary, is the official history of Beethoven’s “late period.” But was there more to it than that?

Beethoven’s Große Fuge was originally written as the last movement of his 13th String Quartet, but at its first performance audiences found it to be too long, too heavy, and altogether quite incomprehensible. Beethoven thought otherwise, and decided instead to use it as the cornerstone of a tenth symphony, one which would explore musical themes and ideas that would really push the boundaries of what was going round and round in Beethoven’s deaf, yet explosively creative head.

Over the summer and autumn of 1826, a five-movement tenth symphony began to come together. The Große Fuge was originally conceived as as the finale, but as the symphony took shape it was moved from the finale to one of the inner movements, orchestrated for string orchestra only. But he just couldn’t make it fit in with the ideas of the symphony he was constructing around it, and eventually he stopped trying to force it, and published it in its final form as Große Fuge, Op. 133.

Meanwhile, the tenth symphony was really progressing well, and if the original Große Fuge received a lukewarm reception in its incarnation as the finale of the 13th String Quartet, it became clear to Beethoven that this tenth symphony would not be welcomed at all. It really pushed the boundaries of tonality and sonic texture. It employed unusual harmonic progressions and rhythmic extremes that would not again see the light of day until Stravinsky. So Beethoven, even on his best days a disagreeable and irascible personality, determined that he was not going to publish the symphony at all. He had more or less completed the draft score, and wrote over many of the pages how the critics were incapable of understanding true music, and how they were going to go to their own graves, denied the privilege of listening to the greatest of Beethoven’s works.

What Beethoven’s ultimate plan for the symphony was – if any – remains unknown, as his final illness prevented him from executing it, and he declined to leave any instructions acknowledging it. It seems that he was indeed desperate to keep it from his publishers, as he instructed his housekeeper Sali (Rosalie), to keep it hidden from them in the event that he passed away. It is likely he was just being bloody-minded, and had no actual long-range plan at all.

Beethoven had notoriously abusive relationships with a string of housekeepers, of which Rosalie Schott (or Schutz) was the latest. She had an older brother Hubert who worked for one of the publishing firms Beethoven had done business with. Hubert Schutz (he went by Schott later in life, but appears to have been known as Schutz at this time) had heard from his superiors that Beethoven needed a new housekeeper, and suggested to his younger sister that she apply for the position.

At some point it became clear to Sali that her master was not going to recover, and that among his papers nobody but her knew anything of the manuscript for the tenth symphony. And, shortly before his death, she took the manuscript home. Maybe she had nefarious intent, or maybe she was just following her master’s instructions…we can only speculate. But on March 26th, 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died, which was a huge event in Vienna, but to Sali’s delight the dust cleared with nobody looking for a tenth symphony.

By this time, Hubert Schott had taken a position with another publishing firm in Graz. Rosalie sent him the manuscript of the tenth symphony, suggesting that Hubert publish it and share the profits with her. But Hubert was horrified by the idea. He felt he had no plausible rationale to explain away his being in possession of an unpublished tenth symphony by the great Ludwig van Beethoven without it reflecting badly on him, let alone how he might profit from the endeavor. By all accounts, he was still no more than a clerk.

At this point, Rosalie disappears from history, and nothing more is known of her, or what became of her. The same would probably also be true of Hubert, except that he proved to be a diligent employee, and by 1861 he emerged as the owner of the music publishing firm H. Schutz of Graz, Austria. The firm, and its owner, had evidently enjoyed some modest success, and Hubert appears to have moved into an address in Kärntnerstraße, Graz, quite a prestigious address at the time. The Schutz family continued to occupy the Kärntnerstraße residence until only an aged spinster remained. When she passed away at the end of WWI, Julius Lichtensteiner moved in and raised a family there, including a grandson Jakob.

Eventually, Jakob inherited the property, and he continued to live there until his retirement in 1991. The property at Kärntnerstraße is (or was … I don’t know if it still exists) too large for him to manage, and he decided to move to a cottage in the countryside. As part of the process, he cleared out the attic, and among the junk he found a leather satchel containing sheafs of old music. For reasons that remain unclear, he decided to sit on this for a few years before he took any notice of what it was. But eventually, he set about examining the musical contents. Jakob was not at all musically inclined, so he could not make anything of the music itself. But after a while, he learned to decipher the scrawled handwriting, and realized that what he had on his hands was something by Beethoven, and whose title was, evidently, “X. Sinfonie.” Even Jakob Lichtensteiner, uneducated as he was in the history of music, realized that a tenth symphony of Beethoven was potentially a very hot property indeed.

Now, you would have to have met Jakob Lichtensteiner – which I have – to understand what followed next. Jakob was one of those people we have all met from time to time. He was basically a clever man, but one who over-estimated his own intelligence. At the same time, he was pathologically suspicious of the motivations of others, while consistently managing to under-estimate their abilities. So, he lived in a permanent state of having tremendous, yet devious plans, which he had no intention of sharing with anyone who might want to steal them from under his nose. Yet, at the same time, you could read him like a book. He must have either earned a tidy sum of money along the way, or inherited it, because he was clearly comfortably off. He chain-smoked, yet was defiantly tee-total.

So where do I come into this story? At that point in time I was still laboring under the youthful delusion that I could be a composer. I was a bit of a computer whiz (for that time, anyway) and I decided that rather than a lack of talent, it was the need of a software suite called Sibelius that was standing in the way of my musical ambitions. So, I bought and installed Sibelius, and a midi player. As a result, I could simply type a musical score into Sibelius, and have the sounds of a synthesized (or sampled) orchestra come out of my speakers. I thought it was just the bee’s knees.

I was doing mostly R&D in semiconductor lasers, and spent a lot of time attending international technical conferences. As part of this I got an invitation to a highly prestigious conference called the “Snowbird Conference,” an invitation-only event in Snowbird, Utah. At this conference, the technical and networking sessions are carefully organized to leave plenty of time for skiing. So, I met a lot of new friends, and did a lot of networking. In particular, I got on very well with an Austrian researcher, Jerome, who was a seriously expert skier, and he guided me through some scary trails that I normally wouldn’t have gone near. In the evening we sat in a hot tub, on the roof, in 3 feet of snow, and I told him all about Sibelius, how you could just enter all the instrumental parts from an orchestral score into it and hear it as it would actually sound played by an orchestra.

I must have made quite an impression, because Jerome’s father happened to be an acquaintance of Jakob Lichtensteiner. Jerome had apparently been fascinated by the Sibelius idea, and told his father. His father, in turn, told Jakob when the latter had expressed some kind of unspecified interest in having musical scores played. Jakob decided that he needed to get in touch with me. Thus it was that, one morning, I got a phone call in my office from a Herr Jakob Lichtensteiner.

Jakob had heard that I had this Sibelius software, and as he happened (!!) to be planning a trip to Montreal, would I be willing to meet him to see if I would be interested in helping him out with a highly confidential research project he was working on, that would require someone to input an orchestral score into Sibelius. I was quite intrigued, and said that if I had time, I would meet up with him when he was in Montreal, and we could discuss his project.

So a few weeks later we met in his downtown hotel room. To cut a very long and very strange conversation short, it eventually transpired that he thought he had the original manuscript of a previously unknown 10th Symphony by Beethoven. When I expressed skepticism, he went through a detailed account of its provenance (much of which I laid out above). He claimed to have Sali’s letter to Hubert among the papers – the one where she begs him to publish the symphony and share the take with her. In order to protect his “investment” he was not willing to let a group of musicologists see the original score, but he thought if he could get a tape of the score played on a computer, they would be able to judge it based on that. I can’t tell you how ludicrous I thought that was, or how masterful he insisted it was. Naturally, he had left the original score itself at home, but brought with him a sheaf of scrappy 10×8 black & white photographs – one of each page – that he quite clearly had taken, developed, and printed himself, like something out of a 1960’s spy movie. But the image quality itself was very good, so props to him.

I pointed out that this was not a Sunday afternoon project. It would take a long time. And for his part, he was not going to let the photographs out of his sight throughout the entire process. So what we decided was as follows. We would take the opening five pages of music – about 2 minutes worth – and I would work on that over the course of the weekend. He could sit and watch.

So he came round to my house, and we set ourselves up on the computer, which, for reasons lost in the mists of time, was set up on the first floor landing. And he couldn’t smoke, which really irked him. Every 15 minutes, he would gather up his pile of photographs and head out onto the deck for a drag. The weekend was a success. It took all Saturday morning to get Sibelius all set up, with all the instruments and everything, but after that the input itself was plain sailing. We input a solid six-and-a-half minutes of music over the course of two long days, including fragments from each of the five movements. We played the resulting sound over the computer’s speakers (there was no way I was letting him and his tar-laced breath anywhere near my music room) and he pronounced himself delighted. We recorded the six-and-a-half minutes of music onto a cassette tape and he left with it. I don’t know if it occurred to him that I still had the fragments of the score inputted into Sibelius, but he made doubly sure to take all of his photographs with him. If the results were satisfactory, he would make arrangements to come back and complete the score.

I never heard from him again, but what can I say? It sounded like the greatest six-and-a-half minutes Beethoven ever wrote. And one day, somehow, somebody managed to delete the files.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Now, anyone for Pâté de Foie Gras?

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