The New York Times (August 23, 2001): Beethoven's 'Macbeth' Bubbles to the Surface

The National Symphony Orchestra announced today that it would perform a version of a Beethoven orchestral work pieced together from ideas the composer set down for an opera based on Shakespeare's ''Macbeth.'' The opera was never written, but Beethoven's preliminary jottings survived.

''We have to remember, this is not a Beethoven composition,'' said Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony. ''This is a reconstruction from sketches.''

In a telephone interview from London yesterday, Mr. Slatkin said that because of the speculative nature of the work, ''I do not pretend this is a Beethoven premiere.''

While the orchestra's publicity material did call the work ''a world premiere of Beethoven's overture to 'Macbeth,' '' a spokeswoman said it was in fact ''an opportunity to hear Beethoven's thoughts and ideas embedded in a performing realization.''

Mr. Slatkin said the composition, which is about eight minutes long, stood well on its merits. If people accept the music on its own, he said, it will survive beyond this performance. ''If not,'' he added, ''so be it.''

The path that led to the performance, scheduled for Sept. 20, 21 and 22 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, winds through several countries and nearly two centuries. Mr. Slatkin said, ''The story of how this performing version came to exist would probably be viewed as too far-fetched if it were to appear in fiction.''

Beethoven began sketching ideas for an opera based on ''Macbeth'' in Vienna from 1809 to 1811, with Heinrich Joachim von Collin as librettist. But von Collin broke off work on the piece because he found it too gloomy.

In 1827, Beethoven died. Source materials relating to the ''Macbeth'' work ended up in collections in Bonn, Berlin and London.

One leaf of sketches for the ''Macbeth'' opera was acquired for the Beethoven House in Bonn. Five leaves in the ''Pastoral'' Symphony Sketchbook in the British Library in London contained ''Macbeth'' material as well as a work that became known as the ''Ghost'' Trio. And a page of a sketchbook in a Berlin library contained ideas for the dramatic action and the scope and character of a ''Macbeth'' overture.

The relevance of each of these fragments and sketches to Beethoven's efforts on a ''Macbeth'' opera was realized only within the last several years, a spokeswoman for the orchestra said.

It started to come together in 1997, when a composer in the Netherlands, Albert Willem Holsbergen, and a lawyer from Madison, Wis., Mark Zimmer, met on a Beethoven Internet chat room. The two men began to exchange tapes and rare recordings of Beethoven works and electronic files of synthesized performances of unperformed pieces.

About two years later, Mr. Holsbergen and Mr. Zimmer created the Unheard Beethoven Web site ( to circulate the files and other background information on Beethoven. The sketches for the ''Macbeth'' opera and fragments of other Beethoven works were put on the site.

Mr. Holsbergen worked out the ''Macbeth'' overture during the summer of 1999 and posted it on the Unheard Beethoven site. The fragment was less than a minute in length. A visitor to the site suggested to Mr. Holsbergen that sketches for the ''Ghost'' Trio and sketches for ''Macbeth'' could be connected because they appeared on the same pages in the London sketchbook.

In January 2000, Mr. Holsbergen used sketches of the ''Ghost'' Trio and sketches linked to the ''Macbeth'' opera to produce a performing version of a ''Macbeth'' overture.

''Frankly, I never thought about a real performance,'' Mr. Holsbergen said. ''We did it for the Web site.''

Mr. Holsbergen said a friend, James F. Green, who is a trustee at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, Calif., took the score to Mr. Slatkin.

Maynard Solomon, a member of the graduate faculty at Juilliard School and a Beethoven expert, said Mr. Holsbergen's efforts would be better called a ''realization rather than a discovery.''

''I have never seen any connection between the 'Ghost' Trio and the other sketches,'' Mr. Solomon said. ''From time to time a scholar attempts to realize an unfinished work by Beethoven. They have to be taken for what they are, in the absence of evidence, a purely speculative effort.''

Mr. Slatkin said: ''I would not have put it in the program if it did not have legitimacy, regardless of who wrote it. But I am the type of person who would prefer to have a rough guess about what might have been rather than to not know at all.''