Musical interferences

Why I wonder do some musicians feel it is necessary to impose their own identity on the work of the great masters? Last week the Croatian born pianist and composer Dejan Lazić presented to the Proms audience the results of his six years of work translating the violin concerto by Brahms into a piano concerto.

In June, another movement of Schubert’s so-called ‘Unfinished’ symphony was performed for the first time in Cambridge, completed by the composer and Cambridge professor of composition Robin Holloway. It seems difficult to justify these, and many similar, performances when the orchestras, soloists and scholars might more productively be devoting time, energy and careful rehearsal to something worthwhile – like many complete yet neglected works that we rarely hear.

I recently reviewed CDs of Sir Donald Tovey’s orchestral music, and I still await similar opportunities to hear symphonies by Cyril Scott, Walford Davies, Granville Bantock, Frederick Cowan and many others (even in this country we have a worthy symphonic tradition), and yet so much exertion goes into presumptuous attempts to make incomplete pieces performable. It is an act that might just be forgiven if carried out by a composer, for there is much to learn from attempting such work. Tovey himself spent valuable time completing Bach’s Art of Fugue, a brilliant scholarly achievement, and many after Süssmayr have attempted to give us access to a complete Mozart Requiem, not least my distinguished OCA tutor colleague Duncan Druce, a composer whose own completion was heard at a Prom concert in 1991.

Yet none can know what was really intended, and in the case of those works incomplete by reason of the composer’s death, it seems presumptuous in the extreme, for all another can do is draw upon what they know of the composer’s past, not the future.

Attempts to justify completing Mahler’s massive 10th would seem an insult to his amazingly progressive imagination, for no one could possibly step into that extraordinary mindset, though Alma Mahler finally gave Deryck Cooke’s version her blessing in 1963, the year before she died, no doubt still without real knowledge of the inner mind of its revolutionary creator. Many years before that, she had approached composers with the task, but they wouldn’t do it, no doubt knowing how impossible it is to get into a creative mind. Ernst Křenek tried in the 1920s, Alban Berg was afraid of it, and later Schoenberg, Britten and Shostakovich all refused to touch it. It was the scholars who dared: Clinton Carpenter, Joseph Wheeler, Remo Mazzetti, conductors Rudolf Barshai and recently the Israeli Yel Gamzou. At least Cooke called his a ‘performing version’. True we would not have Borodin’s Prince Igor or Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina had it not been for the diligent devotion of composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

But why presume to remake substantial parts of non-existent pieces like Beethoven, Schubert or Elgar symphonies? Surely it would be a better use of creative talent and performing skill to devote the time, energy and considerable cost to presenting something new rather than playing around with a few old and doubtful sketches by a long past master! They aren’t the real thing, and couldn’t ever be.

4 Comments

  1. Nigel Monckton 18 August 2011 at 12:42 am

    Well, I’m not a musician, but I suspect the answer is money. In the case of the Schubert, not only is it very popular, but there is the enigmatic name.
    There is also some argument for ‘reflected glory’ – the worthy symphonic tradition you mention consists largely of composers I’d not heard of and who are scarcely headline names. It is probably more difficult to guild a reputation with them than by associating oneself with Mozart or Beethoven.
    The conservatism of the concert-going public and the accountants that run the great orchestras and concert venues will also play a part I guess.
    Hope this doesn’t sound too cynical.

    Reply
  2. Andrew 18 August 2011 at 9:12 am

    I suspect you are right, Nigel. It’s sadly much easier to fill a large venue with repertoire that is already very well known than it is for relatively unfamiliar works.
    And that’s as much the case with music from previous generations as from our own. It always strikes me as odd that, with around 400 Vivaldi concertos to choose from, we are fed the same ones time and time again.
    I also find it disappointing that people will pay money to hear the less persuasive works of ‘famous’ composers rather than try out the fascinating and often very rewarding works of contemporaries to whom history has been less kind. For example, I am fond of the work of JL Krebs, a pupil of JS Bach, who is hardly ever played these days (or try Hummel whose chamber music and church masses compare with Haydn’s, in my opinion).
    Dare I add that’s it also cheaper to put on works of less familiar works from composers of previous generations since (a) there are fewer copyright issues and (b) they don’t need such large orchestras.
    So, no, I don’t think you are sounding too cynical!

    Reply
  3. Chris 18 August 2011 at 9:59 am

    ‘Reflected Glory’ is an interesting, but worrying concept Nigel, although I fear you might be right, although it would seem that it’s largely an academic’s practice.

    Certain things just don’t need touching, Mahler’s 10th for instance, for me I’d rather not hear another persons interpretation of what MIGHT have been; too much guess work. Sure, other historical musics thrive on unwritten but set improvisation rules, but not Mahler.

    Another gripe for me is tagging on, for instance, Mr Matthew’s addition to The Planets. Whilst I realise this was brought about for slightly different reasons, he did mess around with the beautiful last movement in order to shoehorn in his work. So, it amused me immensely that six years after the so-called ‘completion’, Pluto was subsequently downgraded from ‘major planet’ status!

    I dare say, this is all about ‘bums on seats’ and the preconceptions held by those programming concerts need to change in order for them to survive. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the whole experience of orchestral, brass and wind band concerts having to change and come into the 21st century in order to put people, and especially families and youth, back in seats.

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  4. tom smith 18 August 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Being a great fan of classical music,i look forward to the arrival each year to the proms.Not only because we have a great british talent at the moment,and growing,but you get a wide selection of great music,and in the summer.I do not know much about this debate,but one thing i am sure of the music is great.

    Reply

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