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are the creators of the Unheard Beethoven Web site, a sprawling digital archive of unfinished, unrecorded and often unpublished work by one of classical music's towering figures.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 theaccompanying 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 Bonn, Germany, and persuaded librarians to send them photocopies of scores, fragments and notebook scribbles. They painstakingly deciphered these and turned them into playable works.
To do this, they and their collaborators transferred each note by hand from the original scores to a computerized version, manually plugging in values such as pitch and how each note should be played.
Beethoven probably didn't mean for most of these pieces to be heard. But you can listen to them anyway.
Note on format: Most computers have internal synthesizers that can re-create the sounds of violins, pianos and other instruments, with varying degrees of quality. A MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file is information that tells the sound card which notes to play, and how to play them, rather than being recorded sound like an MP3 file.
Source: The Unheard Beethoven
At first, they shared the results only with the scattered handful of people in their chat room. But they realized over time that others might be interested and launched the Unheard Beethoven Web site. That's drawn growing interest over the years, with their 500,000th visitor just a few weeks ago, they said.
"Things have mushroomed, with more archives and libraries sharing materials, and with actual musicians performing and recording some of these unheard works," Zimmer said. "So we're pleased to have made a bit of an impact on the musical world."
Indeed, they've approached the top of the professional world at least once. One of their standout pieces has been the reconstruction of fragments of an overture originally intended to be part of an opera based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth," which was ultimately performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
Holsbergen initially worked out fragments of the Macbeth Overture in 1999 and posted them on the Web site. A visitor suggested that other elements could be found in other Beethoven sketchbooks, and the Dutch composer ultimately pieced together an eight-minute version from the incomplete works.
It's that kind of reconstruction work that has given the pair a mixed reputation in academic and professional classical music circles. Holsbergen's "Macbeth" was championed by National Symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin, who premiered the work in 2001.
However, in a harsh critique of the effort, The New York Times labeled it "a sham and a shame," calling instead for new works by living composers.
Patricia Stroh, curator of San Jose State University's Beethoven Center notes that Holsbergen and Zimmer's amateur efforts have historical precedent. The composer's first biographer was an American diplomat, for example.
"With Beethoven studies, there is a long tradition of people outside the musicological world contributing a lot," Stroh said.
Whether they will leave a lasting mark outside enthusiast circles is another question.
"Merely playing previously unplayed works, digitally, is not going to create a significant base for scholarly advance," said University of Manchester professor Barry Cooper, a Beethoven scholar who has reconstructed an unfinished Tenth Symphony. "Its main advantage for scholars may be in drawing attention to works they might previously have overlooked."
Scholars aren't their audience, however. They're hoping to reach the mainstream in a way academicians and virtuosos can't.
"The idea is to promote listeners getting familiar with unfamiliar music," Zimmer said. "Scholars have had access to this stuff for well over a hundred years, and haven't done anything with it."