Mark Zimmer ’82, JD’85

Beethoven’s Detective

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Andy Manis

By day, Mark Zimmer ’82, JD’85 is a Madison lawyer. But by night, he’s a classical-music detective, hunting for clues in archives around the world to identify lesser-known works by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Together with Netherlands-based composer A. Willem Holsbergen, Zimmer runs the Unheard Beethoven project, which gives new life to compositions that are usually overlooked. Their most recent discovery about a short piece titled “Liebe” (“Love”) offers a blush-worthy challenge to Beethoven’s decidedly dour public image.

For years, music historians have wondered about a mysterious short piece that Beethoven put up for sale only once, in 1822. By carefully researching the piece’s first line and examining various other clues, Zimmer and Holsbergen were able to not only identify the musical sketch referenced in the 1822 catalog, but also match it to lyrics borrowed from a German poem styled as a love letter.

The result? A dirty joke from 1797. The sketch includes the word banana three times, and Beethoven matched the fruit references to music that grows increasingly intense.

“Liebe” doesn’t represent the first time that Zimmer has spotted the composer’s lighter side. “Beethoven has this undeserved reputation as kind of a stiff, moralizing character,” he says. “[But] I think it’s very much in Beethoven’s character — especially as a young man in his twenties — to have this kind of humor come out in his music on occasion. … For instance, he wrote a little song [titled] ‘Der Arme Componist’ (‘The Poor Composer’), where he laments that his imagination is so empty that he is inspired with the thoughts of a jackass, while the musical line makes the sound of a donkey braying as the piece comes to an abrupt halt.”

Though some have criticized the Unheard Beethoven project for reaching too far to popularize Beethoven, Zimmer says the majority of classical institutions he’s encountered have been very supportive. The site has helped to corral an audience for performances of neglected Beethoven pieces, which, in turn, has encouraged record labels and musicians to get involved. For example, tenor Dominic Armstrong and pianist George Lepauw recently performed and recorded “Liebe,” and recording studios Monument Records and Italy’s Inedita have produced more than a dozen albums of neglected Beethoven pieces.

But why Beethoven? Zimmer says he’s drawn to “the sheer human drama of his music. He doesn’t feel anything in a shallow manner. There’s great tenderness, great rage, great love, and great humor, all wrapped into one, sometimes in the same piece.”

You can listen to the project’s recordings at unheardbeethoven.org.

Published in the Summer 2017 issue

Tags: Alumni, music, scholarship

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