July 19, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Beethoven's rarest works re-created online
Mark Zimmer, a tax attorney in Madison, Wis., and Dutch composer Willem Holsbergen are the creators of the Unheard Beethoven Web site, a sprawling digital archive of unfinished, unrecorded and often unpublished work by one of classical music's towering figures. With painstaking care, they're systematically turning Beethoven's most illegible scrawls into digital scores that can be downloaded and played by any computer, with the ultimate goal of bringing to life virtually every note the composer put to paper.
Their passion may be little different than that of the obsessive Beatles fan who haunts record store basements looking for even the most marginal bootleg recordings. But they're also more ambitious, hoping--as did the creators of last month's hugely successful British Broadcasting Corp. series on Beethoven--to rekindle interest in a cultural giant.
A pair of classical music enthusiasts has spent half a decade combing archives and obsessively re-creating hundreds of obscure pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven for download as MIDI files.
Their hope is to rekindle mainstream interest in the great German composer, and so far they've done all right: The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., performed their reconstruction of an overture originally intended to be part of an opera based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth." On the other hand, The New York Times labeled the performance "a sham and a shame." Still, if a recent BBC series is any measure, the time is ripe for a Beethoven revival.
"My hope is to kick-start a (classical music) revival through new masterpieces," Holsbergen said. "Isn't it amazing that this may be possible through the sketches left by Beethoven?"
Perhaps it's a quixotic dream in the era of Britney Spears and Eminem. But Zimmer and Holsbergen are part of a growing community of amateurs and semiprofessionals who are using the Net and other digital tools to bring classical music out of concert halls and academies, hoping to popularize it with the democratizing force of the Internet.
The evidence may not be visible yet in classical music sales, which, at about 3 percent of the market, are a sliver of pop music sales. Yet the energy is palpable, on interlocking blogs from ordinary music fans and from the New Yorker magazine's music critic, in the classical stations programmed by home disc jockeys on services such as Live365, and in the eager amateur criticism accompanying this spring's Webcast of the Van Cliburn piano competitions.
Nor are Net surfers ignoring that energy. Last month, the BBC offered versions of Beethoven symphonies on its Web site, in conjunction with a series of features on the composer. Outstripping all expectations, the site drew more than 1 million downloads in just a few weeks, sparking talk of an unrealized hunger for classical music online.
From chat rooms to the Kennedy Center
Holsbergen and Zimmer met online in 1997, when both were habitues of an Internet chat room devoted to Beethoven. Holsbergen was a composer by training, while Zimmer was a self-taught pianist and guitar player (at one point for a "cowboy" band called Wacko Bob and the Skillet-Lickers, he says) who became interested in Beethoven after reading "A Clockwork Orange," a book in which the main character's violent fantasies are accompanied by Beethoven music.
Recognizing a kindred desire to hear all possible recordings of the composer's works, they began exchanging works from their collections and trading information on tracking down pieces they couldn't find.
Over time, they found there were many works that had never been recorded, and many had never even been officially published. If they had, it was only in obscure supplements almost unknown outside the academic world.
Apparently stymied in their desire to hear everything, they kept looking for recordings. Then Holsbergen mentioned that he had a MIDI sequencer--a computer device or software program that can turn scored music into notes. At the very least, they decided, that would allow them to create crude versions of the unheard fragments.
The pair contacted archives around the world, such as San Jose State University's Ira Brilliant Beethoven Center and the Beethoven-Archiv in
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