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.

Pietro Mascagni

The last meeting of the Society took place on Monday 20 April.  It focused on the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni.  He was the son of a baker in Lavorno and studied at the Milan Academy. He lived from 1863 to 1945 and in the 1930s and during World War II worked reluctantly, and with difficulty, under Mussolini’s fascist regime.  He wrote 15 operas and one operetta.

mascagniIn England we tend to remember him only for his one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, the piece that made him famous overnight and gave him financial security for the rest of his life.  At its first performance it received no less than 60 curtain calls.  In his native Italy and elsewhere in Europe his works are better remembered and the presenter Ron Seaman played us some examples.  He was seen as the heir to Verdi but as time went on, it was Puccini who wore that mantle.  Among the pieces played were Mein ester Walzer, my first waltz; the Apotheosis of the Stork; and the ballet music for Fiori del Brabante.  We also heard extracts from Cavalleria including the final scene; Intermezzo and the Easter Hymn.  We also heard extracts from his last opera Nerone.

He is a composer who made it big early in his life and yet did not quite follow it up as he matured.  Listening to the range of his work it was perhaps surprising that he never composed film scores as some of his compositions, which had strong melodic lines, could have been adapted.

It was interesting to hear some works not often performed to gain a wider perspective of this composer.

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Last meeting of the season

The Society’s current season ended in fine style with a double bill: one part on Puccini’s Tosca and the other on the English composer, Gerald Finzi. Tosca is of course a very well known opera but what is less well appreciated is how broadly similar most productions are. Vic Riches explained that this was because Puccini left detailed instructions on how it should be performed and most productions followed them. It received its premier in January 1900 at a time of unrest in Italy and the violent nature of the plot – with torture and a firing squad graphically depicted – meant a troubled start. However, it is now a much loved part of the operatic repertoire.

Gerald Finzi
Gerald Finzi
The English composer, Gerald Finzi, is by contrast less well known and yet deserves to be heard more. He is perhaps best known for his songs and we heard ‘In years defaced’ and ‘Let us garlands bring’ the latter performed by Bryn Terfel. The second movement from his Cello Concerto opus 40, performed by Raphael Wallfisch under the baton of Vernon Handley, was played together with Romance for String Orchestra opus 11. Both are fine works and worth listening to if there is an opportunity.

Ed Tinline, joint chair of the Society, said it had been a successful year ‘fulfilling the Society’s purpose of bringing generally lesser known pieces and composers to a wider public’. Members heard music by Bartok, a variety of Scandinavian composers and the French composer Dutilleux as well as more well known names such as Wagner, Ravel and Schumann. Numbers attending had increased slightly on previous years following the change to Monday evenings which is encouraging he added.