Short story in which a student of music uses some sort of an audio time machine to speak across time to Beethoven. He wants to the ask the famous composer why he didn't finish his last work.

Beethoven was deaf so experienced this as a more particularly disturbing hallucination. It affected his sanity and he was unable to finish his current work.

Subsequent iterations mean he gave up composing sooner and sooner and so wrote fewer and fewer pieces. He eventually disappeared as an historical figure.

I read this when I was at school, I think. 1970s, presumably from the school library thus old.

  • Why did they not use this on Hitler? Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 12:14
  • @stackoverblown Perhaps they did... Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 12:58
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    @stackoverblown, with time travel you can succeed and absolutely not achieve the desired outcome.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 14:39
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    @stackoverblown you should see what Hitler managed to achieve in the original timeline... Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 17:37
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    @Andy From the way Midgley died I suspect they already got him. ;) Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 17:54

1 Answer 1


This must surely be The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs, a short story by Carter Scholz, first published in Universe 7 in 1977.

As you recall, investigators use a mental transfer technique to communicate across time to great artists of the past, such as Beethoven:

The machines were windows into the past... for what they did was transfer your consciousness into the mind of someone in the past.

With just a single researcher riding in the mind of a subject there was no problem - the subject was completely unaware of the "rider". But a problem called "crosstalk" occurred when several researchers inhabited the mind at the same moment:

"The more channels, the worse it gets. So they're especially worried about guys like Beethoven; sometimes he has a dozen or more researchers in his head at once. They're worried about that."

"What, that Beethoven might overhear thoughts from the future?"

Researchers were particularly interested in a date in 1823 when Beethoven began composing his Ninth symphony. When he visits this date, the protagonist, Largens, hears thousands of voices, so intense that Beethoven's mind cannot tolerate it, and he goes insane. As a result:

They had killed the Ninth Symphony. All the frustrated pianists and composers and singers turned scholars had brought their frustration to the works they studied; and they had brought it to Beethoven himself. All their souls' cheapnesses summed; the faint crosstalk turned to a shout. They had brought their weakness and despair in such pent-up furious quantity that Beethoven had been swamped by it, and drowned.

When Largens returns to the present he finds that the past has been changed; in this new timeline Beethoven had gone mad before writing the Ninth symphony. The story ends with Largens pondering if research continues, will Beethoven's oeuvre decrease until finally he never becomes a composer at all?

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    Not quite as old as I thought, but that's definitely the right one. I did feel it may have had a long title but wasn't sure. Thanks. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 12:59
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    You weren't far off @PotatoCrisp - you had the correct decade Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 13:32
  • For some reason, I remembered this being about the Tenth Symphony, which indeed was unfinished, implying that prior to the events of the story there was a complete tenth symphony, but because they screwed it up so badly, that's why there isn't anymore. Maybe I'm thinking of a different story, but it's remarkably close except in the number of the symphony... Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 13:30
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    @DarrelHoffman They screwed up the timeline so that Beethoven went insane before he wrote the Ninth. So when the time-traveller woke-up he found "Beethhoven only wrote eight symphonies, remember? There were fragments for the Ninth, but no more?" Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 14:09
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    Yeah, sounds familiar, for some reason I just thought it started in a timeline where there were 10 and ended up in our current timeline where there are 9. But instead it starts in our timeline and ends in another where there are 8 - just a minor change of perspective, but an interesting twist. Maybe I read it in another timeline... Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 15:20

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