When Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, he was three years removed from the completion of his Ninth Symphony, a work heralded by many as his magnum opus. He had started work on his 10th Symphony but, due to deteriorating health, wasn’t able to make much headway: All he left behind were some musical sketches.
Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.
Now, thanks to the work of a team of music historians, musicologists, composers and computer scientists, Beethoven’s vision will come to life.
I presided over the artificial intelligence side of the project, leading a group of scientists at the creative AI startup Playform AI that taught a machine both Beethoven’s entire body of work and his creative process.
A full recording of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony is set to be released on Oct. 9, 2021, the same day as the world premiere performance scheduled to take place in Bonn, Germany – the culmination of a two-year-plus effort.
Past attempts hit a wall
Around 1817, the Royal Philharmonic Society in London commissioned Beethoven to write his Ninth and 10th symphonies. Written for an orchestra, symphonies often contain four movements: the first is performed at a fast tempo, the second at a slower one, the third at a medium or fast tempo, and the last at a fast tempo.
But when it came to the 10th Symphony, Beethoven didn’t leave much behind, other than some musical notes and a handful of ideas he had jotted down.
There have been some past attempts to reconstruct parts of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony. Most famously, in 1988, musicologist Barry Cooper ventured to complete the first and second movements. He wove together 250 bars of music from the sketches to create what was, in his view, a production of the first movement that was faithful to Beethoven’s vision.
Yet the sparseness of Beethoven’s sketches made it impossible for symphony experts to go beyond that first movement.
Assembling the team
In early 2019, Dr. Matthias Röder, the director of the Karajan Institute, an organization in Salzburg, Austria, that promotes music technology, contacted me. He explained that he was putting together a team to complete Beethoven’s 10th Symphony in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday. Aware of my work on AI-generated art, he wanted to know if AI would be able to help fill in the blanks left by Beethoven.