Computer is set to complete Beethoven’s unfinished symphony

In the most ambitious project of its type ever attempted, a computer has been set to work to complete Beethoven’s unfinished 10th symphony.

Artificial intelligence has long been able to compete with the human mind at games like chess and complex maths problems. But musicologists and computer programmers in Germany are attempting to prove it can replicate creative genius.

And they plan to put the results to the test in a public performance by a full symphony orchestra in Beethoven’s birthplace, the German city of Bonn, next year.

The project is part of celebrations planned to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

It is known Beethoven was working on a 10th symphony in his final years from references in his letters and the accounts of his contemporaries. 

Gerhard von Breuning, the composer’s friend, wrote of Beethoven telling his father how the work would have a “new gravitational force” that would go beyond even his celebrated 9th symphony, one of the most revolutionary works of its time.

But Beethoven left behind only a few fragmentary musical sketches of what he planned. The new project aims to use a computer to create the full work he might have composed. 

“The quality of genius cannot be fully replicated, still less if you’re dealing with Beethoven’s late period,” Christine Siegert, head of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn and one of those involved in the project, told the German broadcaster Deutshe Welle.

“I think the project’s goal should be to integrate Beethoven’s existing musical fragments into a coherent musical flow. That’s difficult enough, and if this project can manage that, it will be an incredible accomplishment.”

Machine learning software is fed not only with the musical sketches Beethoven left behind for the symphony, but also with other examples of his work and of the composers who influenced him.

“Take a particular Beethoven work, one for which extensive drafts still exist, like the Eroica Symphony. If you feed the computer both the sketches and the final product, it can figure out how Beethoven works with sketches and where he goes from there,” Ms Siegert said.

The project is being funded by Deutsche Telekom and is headed by Matthias Röder, director of the Karajan Institute in Salzburg.

“No machine has been able to do this for so long,” Mr Röder told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper. “This is unique.”

There will be some human input. While the computer will write the music, a living composer will orchestrate it.

The resulting work will be performed in Bonn, the former West German capital where Beethoven was born in 1770. Though he left for Austria at the age of 21 and never returned, he is still revered as the city’s most famous son, and extensive celebrations are planned for next year’s anniversary.

Barry Cooper, a British composer and musicologist who attempted to complete Beethoven’s 10th Symphony in 1988, said what he had heard of the computer’s work so far was not convicning.

“I listened to a short excerpt that has been created. It did not sound remotely like a convincing reconstruction of what Beethoven intended," Prof Cooper told Agence France Presse. “There is, however, scope for improvement with further work.”

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