And the Beethoven goes on: Bonn premieres ‘new’ 10th symphony

AI and a team of musicologists have breathed life into surviving sketches 200 years later

A mural of Ludwig van Beethoven in his native city of Bonn: A computer has written melody, harmonised it and composed a coda to reanimate a lost partial composition. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP

With all the da-da-da-daaah drama of Beethoven’s final, ninth symphony, the German composer’s home city of Bonn will premiere on Saturday his previously unfinished 10th.

Almost 200 years after Beethoven's death in 1827, a team of music experts have worked together with a computerised Artificial Intelligence (AI) programme to transform the composer's few surviving sketches into a full-length work.

The project came to life early in 2019 when Dr Matthias Röder of the Salzburg-based Karajan Institute sought out Prof Ahed Elgammal, director of the Art & AI Lab at Rutgers University.

In June 2019, they assembled a “Beethoven 10” team including Austrian composer Walter Werzowa and musicologist and pianist Robert Levin, who had previously completed works by Mozart and Bach.


Signature flourishes

Over the next 18 months, they evaluated music composed by an AI engine that had been taught Beethoven’s entire body of work, as well as his signature flourishes and creative approach to composition.

Artificial intelligence has been used in the past to complete short pieces of music, but never anything on this scale.

Among the challenges was to teach the AI how to take a short phrase or motif to develop into a longer, four-movement symphony structure. The team had to teach the computer how to write a melody line, harmonise it, compose a coda to conclude a section and bridge to another.

“Once we had a full composition, the AI was going to have to figure out how to orchestrate it, which involves assigning different instruments for different parts,” wrote Prof Elgammal in Smithsonian magazine. “And it had to pull off these tasks in the way Beethoven might do so.”

Dreamy contrast

It is not the first attempt to bring Beethoven’s 10th symphony to life: in 1988 musicologist Barry Cooper had a go, weaving together 250 bars of music to produce what he said was a faithful first movement.

Saturday’s concert brings to a close the city’s pandemic-hit, 250th-birthday celebrations of its famous son.

A full recording of the “new” symphony – a dreamy contrast to the dramatic ninth – will be released to the world on Saturday, after the livestreamed world premiere in Bonn with the city’s Beethoven Orchester.

No word on whether London’s Royal Philharmonic Society – who commissioned the symphony in 1817 – ever got its money back from the composer’s estate for services not rendered.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin