Musical Notes: Unfinished Compositions

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To Complete or Not (to Complete)?

Many, if not most creative artists leave behind one or more unfinished works when they die – writers (Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood), painters (Titian: Pietá), sculptors (Rodin: The Gates of Hell) – and so it is with musicians. Of the many musical instances, here are just five examples:

Mozart: Requiem

Commissioned by a mysterious stranger, subsequently identified as Count von Walsegg, who intended to pass it off as his own work, the version of this popular work that we hear performed today is usually that completed by Franz Süssmayr. Just what was written by Mozart, and what was added by Süssmayr is not 100% certain. We know that the first two sections, the Introitus and the Kyrie eleison were fully completed in score by Mozart. Of the succeeding sections, parts were probably written by Mozart but orchestrated by Süssmayr, parts are probably Süssmayr's own work, while the concluding section is by Süssmayr, but comprises mainly music by Mozart recycled from the first two sections. Matters are made especially complicated by the fact that in order to get the final payment for the completed work, Mozart's wife, Constanza, had to deliver a score that appeared to be Mozart's own work. Süssmayr was able to imitate Mozart's handwriting and even forge his signature – the score is signed and dated 1792 (Mozart died in December 1791).

Motive for completion: Constanza's urgent need for money to ward off poverty.

Mahler: Symphony 10

When Gustav Mahler died in May 1911, the composer left sketches and manuscripts for an uncompleted Tenth Symphony. In 1924, Mahler's widow Alma permitted a high quality, photographic facsimile of the manuscript to be published, and requested that an edition be made of two of the five movements: the opening Adagio and the central Purgatorio. Up until only shortly before her death in 1964, Alma Mahler forbade any performance or 'completion' of the work, other than of this two-movement edition.

Although not the first to consider the possibility, in 1959-60, the English musicologist Deryck Cooke produced what he described as 'a Performing Version' based on the manuscript facsimile. A studio performance of this performing version was recorded by the BBC and broadcast on radio. Alma was furious initially and forbade any further infringements of her veto. However in late 1963, she was persuaded to listen to the tape and was convinced that it was after all a worthwhile project, so much so that she made new, previously unpublished material available to Cooke for study. From this material, Cooke and his co-workers produced a second performing version, the one we mostly hear performed today.

Motive for completion: Irresistible academic curiosity, promoted by a genuine love of the music.

Puccini: Turandot

Puccini died in 1924, following an unsuccessful operation for throat cancer. His final opera, Turandot was left unfinished, although in an advanced state – the score was fully orchestrated up to the point in Act III when Liù's body is carried off the stage. In addition there were some 30 or so pages of drafts and sketches for the last two scenes. The conductor Arturo Toscanini suggested to Puccini's publisher, Ricordi, that the director of the Turin Conservatory, Franco Alfano, should tackle a completion. For a number of reasons, the resulting commission was problematic, not least because Toscanini twice insisted on substantial cuts in what Alfano had produced from Puccini's sketches. In the event, at the opera's première – given at La Scala, Milan on 25 April, 1926 – Toscanini turned to the audience at the relevant point in the Act III, said, 'Here the maestro laid down his pen', and left the orchestra pit. This was an action previously agreed with Ricordi, and not as has often been asserted, Toscanini's own whim. The version heard in the opera house or on recordings was, until recently, always the shorter of Alfano's two offerings; it is generally agreed that it is an unsatisfactory ending. Since 2001, a new completion by the respected Italian composer Luciano Berio has been gaining exposure.

Motive for completion: An almost complete work, with the composer's own work-in-progress materials for the remainder, but which was rushed into public view prematurely.

Bartok: Viola Concerto

This concerto was commissioned by the greatest viola player of his generation, William Primrose. Three weeks before he died in September 1945, Bartok wrote to Primrose to say that the concerto was 'ready in draft, so that only the score has to be written, which means a purely mechanical work, so to speak'. After Bartok's death, his family asked the composer's friend Tibor Serly to look over the sketches of the concerto and to prepare it for publication. Mechanical work it might have been for Bartok, who had the work all in his head, but Serly found that the manuscript comprised a set of unnumbered loose-leaf sheets, written in a cryptic shorthand, with little harmony and almost no instrumentation; the task took him over two years. Primrose himself edited the solo viola part, but he would have done that anyway, or at least indicated technical problems to Bartok. Thus again, we do not know the exact form the concerto would have taken had the composer lived to complete it himself.

Serly's completed version of the concerto was premièred by Primrose and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antal Dorati, in 1949, and continued to be played in this form until the 1990s, when alternative versions by Bartok's son Peter, and others, appeared, which re-evaluated the original sketches.

Motive for completion: Delivery of a commission, by one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, for a concerto for an instrument seriously under-represented in the repertoire, to one of its greatest ever players.

Elgar: Symphony 3

The names of three people are central to the story behind Elgar's so-called Third Symphony: George Bernard Shaw who initiated it, William ('Billy') Reed who preserved Elgar's sketches for it, and Anthony Payne who 'elaborated' on them.

In the latter part of his life, after the death of his beloved wife Alice, Elgar had lost the will and perhaps the inspiration to compose – his last major work, the Cello Concerto, was written in 1919. During the 1920s, Elgar and Shaw became good friends, and sometime around 1930, Shaw encouraged him to start composing again. Elgar began sketching ideas for a number of works, including a new symphony, and Shaw was instrumental in persuading the BBC to commission one. At a dinner held by the BBC to celebrate the composer's 75th birthday in 1932, the commission was announced. The news raised considerable interest and there was soon much speculation about progress on the symphony, some of it fuelled by Elgar's own comments which were open to easy misinterpretation.

Enter our second cast member – William H Reed. Billy Reed had been a member of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) since its formation in 1904. He became its Leader in 1912 and continued in that position until 1935, when he became the orchestra's Chairman. Through Elgar's association with the LSO, Reed and Elgar became close friends, the former being summoned frequently to play through sketches for the new symphony, Reed on his violin and Elgar at the piano. When Elgar's health began seriously to deteriorate, he realised that the symphony would never be finished. There is some dispute as to the exact words and the manner in which they were spoken, but Reed makes Elgar's wishes about the work clear: 'Don't let anyone tinker with it. I think you had better burn it.' Reed did not burn the sketches and an agreement between Elgar's daughter Carice and the BBC gave the sketches to the BBC with two provisos: one, that no one should have access to them for the purpose of making any additions or corrections, and two, that they should not be published, neither complete nor in part. However, in 1935 Reed published a book, Elgar as I Knew Him, in which a good number of the sketches were reproduced.

The final cast member, Anthony Payne, had been interested in seeing what could be done with the sketches since first reading Reed's book in 1972, but it wasn't until 1993 when the BBC contacted him about putting them together for a performance workshop that serious thought was given to the project. As source material, the BBC sent Payne copies of all the sketch pages, not just those already known from Reed's book, but the project never materialised as the Elgar family would not sanction it. Payne, however, continued with it under wraps, unable to give it up. Under the UK's 70-year copyright rule, the sketches would enter the public domain in 2004, potentially for anyone to tamper with, so after much deliberation, the Elgar family concluded 'better the devil you know' and commissioned Payne to go ahead and produce what he could from the sketches. The result, Elgar's Symphony No.3, Payne described as an 'Elaboration on The Sketches'. It received its first performance on 15 February, 1998 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis.

Motive for completion: To pre-empt somebody else less sympathetic from doing so.

Should I or Shouldn't I?

The big question, and a moral dilemma, is should unfinished works ever be 'completed' after the writer/composer/artist's death, or should they be left untouched? Straight away, musical works differ from those by a novelist, a playwright, a sculptor or an artist, in that the latters' works can be read or looked at as they stand without any external collaboration. In the case of a picture or a sculpture, there can only be one opportunity to 'finish' it. A book, a play or a piece of music can be 'finished' many times over, and unsuccessful attempts discarded without affecting the original. For the majority of people however, musical sketches, or even a full score needs a performance to enable the notes written on the staves to be heard. It is given to a very fortunate few to be able to sight-read music and hear in their inner ear what the composer had in his mind as the notes were written.

Each of the five examples described above has a different justification for why it was done: in the case of Mozart's Requiem, a need to survive; of Mahler's Tenth an intellectual imperative; of Puccini's opera and the Bartok concerto, the apparently advanced state of completion of the work; of Elgar's Third Symphony, a choice between a rock and a hard place. The Elgar case is particularly difficult as it appears to run contrary to the composer's express instructions. By extrapolation, it would seem clear therefore that unfinished works should remain just that – unfinished. On the other hand, would we be happier with no Turandot at all, an opera on paper only, or an opera in which performances stop abruptly at Puccini's last fully finished bar, following Toscanini's example? Then again, would you read a 'whodunit' thriller in which the final chapter containing the denouement did not exist? Clearly, even with the best of intentions and with the greatest sympathy for the work involved, somebody at some time will not be able to just let these works rest. Or are they perhaps performing a great service to the rest of us, setting the works free?

Personally, of those discussed here, the case I have the most difficulty with is that of the Elgar symphony. Like all moral dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer – it is a dilemma. However, the people concerned need to consider very carefully the full extent of their actions when faced with making that call.

Till next time, happy listening.

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