The Case for the Unfinished

The Case for the Unfinished was the title of last nights presentation from Tony Powell.  One might be forgiven for thinking this was about Schubert’s unfinished symphony but in fact it was about other composer’s unfinished works of which of course there are plenty.  Attempts to add another movement to Schubert’s work have not been successful and indeed it is possible that what is left is indeed finished.

Tony instead started with a Night on a Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky.  The final movement was changed by Rimsky Korsakov and this was played first.  Then we heard the original version which was entirely different and a complete contrast.  The point here was that finishing another composer’s work may be acceptable if it is in the spirit of the original.

Mozart

Two evenings devoted to this composer

Another famous unfinished work is the Requiem by Mozart and this was being feverishly composed as he was dying.  It was famously finished by his pupil and sometime collaborator Süssmayr.  There are many arguments about who wrote what bit of the work but nevertheless, there is sufficient of Mozart in the piece to make it a great work of art.  The difference here is that the work was intended to be finished and Mozart was dictating ideas until his actual death.  With Schubert on the other hand, we do not know of his intentions.

Bruckner’s ninth is usually played in its incomplete form but again, a lot of material was left – indeed a substantial number of sketches and completed elements – to enable an attempt to be made to create a final movement.  We heard Sir Simon Rattle conducting a performance and he was quoted as saying that there was ‘more Bruckner in the final movement than there was of Mozart in the Requiem.’  It certainly sounded authentic although there were references to the 5th now and again.

It was a surprise to some present that Puccini did not finish Turandot but the opera was left 15 minutes or so short at his death. It was finished by Franco Alfano yet it is recognisably in the master’s hand.

After a long fallow period following the Great War, Elgar started work on his 3rd Symphony which he did not finish by the time of his death in 1934.  From the surviving material the BBC asked Anthony Payne to finish it and he worked on the project for many years.  The first performance was in 1998 conducted by Andrew Davies.  The usual attribution is to both Elgar and Payne.  We heard part of the 1st movement and most of the 2nd.

Finally, Mahler and the unfinished 10th.  Mahler left a lot of notes and a ‘short score’ that is, not a fully orchestrated version.  Mahler had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful and this added to the turmoil in his life.  Initially his widow resisted attempts to finish and fully orchestrate the score but later relented.   There were several attempts and many statements by musicians saying it shouldn’t be done.  Deryck Cooke worked on the score and this was first performed in 1964.  Alma Mahler had changed her mind once she had seen the finished work and heard a performance.  We listened to one movement which was extremely ‘Mahler like’ in its sound and development.

This was a most interesting evening and shed light on the difficulties and problems of trying to finish another composer’s work.  Composition is a highly individual activity and however many notes and sketches are left, what would have ultimately been produced can never be recreated.  But if the attempts are honest to the original composer’s style and intentions, a worthwhile result can be achieved.

The group next meets on 5 February 2018.

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