Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Our 100th Post: Going behind their backs

Born out of papers presented at a study day in April 2008, Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Work is a fascinating volume. Edited by Lucy Walker, it represents the most recent work in Britten scholarship, covering such areas as musical and non-musical influences on the composer (as varied as Ovid, the cinema and Shostakovich), studies of individual works, and a discussion of a work that was never written – the un-set libretto by Australian novelist, Patrick White.

In the following short extract from a much longer essay, composer Colin Matthews looks at the fraught question of publishing and recording unfinished and unpublished works. It is a subject on which he is unusually qualified to speak: for many years he collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. In addition, he has been much involved with editing Britten's unpublished music, including the recent reconstruction of a clarinet concerto and three songs for
Les Illuminations which were omitted from the published version.

We would urge anyone interested in this subject to read his essay in its entirety, as we can only give a flavour of the argument here:

The most significant unfinished piece to have fully entered the repertoire is, of course, Mozart’s Requiem. There can be very few, if any, who would maintain that it should not be performed at all, as not representative of Mozart’s final wishes, but of course there has been controversy for over 200 years about Süssmayr’s contribution as regards both its extent and its competence; and as scholarship has become more focused, different versions have emerged, although none has completely won the day and supplanted the standard editions.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is a different case, since it seems just as likely that Schubert was content with it in its incomplete state as that he tried but failed to complete it. Like the Mozart Requiem, it has been a repertoire piece from the outset, as has the torso of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony; but here we have a different and tragic state of affairs. It is almost certain that Bruckner not only finished the Finale in sketch form, but completed a much larger proportion than survives in orchestral score. The chaotic dispersal of the manuscript after his death, with his friends appropriating pages of the Finale as souvenirs, means that – unless those missing pages turn up (which is not impossible even now) – the Finale cannot be reconstructed other than hypothetically.

As we move nearer to our own time – with the unlikelihood of discovering, say, a previously unknown Strauss symphonic poem – attention turns to juvenilia or to earlier versions of well-known works. Here the record industry, in its insatiable quest for novelty (as long as this does not mean recording genuinely new music) has been responsible for unearthing works that might be better forgotten.

The Thematic Catalogue of Britten’s music will comprise a completely open and unexpurgated account of everything he wrote. There will in future be no excuse for the kind of misinformation where, for instance, works are regularly described as having been ‘discovered’ at the Britten–Pears Foundation, as though they had been previously unknown or unrecognized. In fact the basic listing of works, including juvenilia and unfinished pieces, was made while Britten was still alive, and at his instigation. Myth and misinformation tends to become attached to ‘unknown’ works, and especially to the music that I have been discussing – Mozart’s Requiem most notably, of course, but at the first performance of the three completed movements of Bruckner’s Ninth, seven years after his death, the existence of even the sketches for the Finale was deliberately denied. Those musicologists who examined Mahler’s Tenth largely failed to grasp the scope of the work, or its scale; there are still some today who wish it had remained in manuscript and unplayed. No one, before Anthony Payne, thought to look properly through Elgar’s sketches; and the announcement of the reconstructed Third Symphony’s first performance in 1997 brought forth howls of protest from devoted Elgarians who would have preferred that Elgar’s wish that the manuscript should be burned – expressed once only and immediately contradicted – had been carried out.

Would Britten have approved of works that he had put to one side being revealed for all to see? Probably not. But would anyone argue, given the archive that we have charge of, that we should not make it as accessible as we can? This does not mean publishing or recording everything – far from it – but so long as this ‘unauthorized’ music is given its proper perspective, it can only add to our overall understanding of the composer. I have to admit myself to a particular fascination with the hidden workings of composers, and have learned far more from pursuing this path than from analysis, whose insights by comparison can sometimes seem a little cold and clinical – something Britten himself is known to have felt. He would have been somewhat dismayed at the idea of a study day being devoted to him, especially one which brought so much attention to the juvenilia – ‘here was no Mozart I fear’, he wrote, in typically disparaging tone, in the introduction to a collection of his early piano pieces – but I cannot help feeling that he would also have been secretly pleased.

The essay from which this post is taken may be found in Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Work edited by Lucy Walker and published by the Boydell Press in the Aldeburgh Studies series. Unknown Britten, Colin Matthews’ reconstructions of rediscovered works by Britten is available on CD and download from the NMC online shop. While there, take a look at some of their other inventive releases including their Gramophone award-winning NMC Songbook.

No comments: