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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


Another and most recent 'completion' of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony prompts me to wonder why this sort of aimless academic exercise attracts so much attention -- and investment, for these completed works are performed, sometimes quite widely, by orchestras that might more productively be devoting time, energy and careful rehearsal to something worthwhile -- like complete yet neglected works.

I have just been reviewing new CDs of Sir Donald Tovey's symphony and cello concerto, 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. Yet none can really 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 Symphony are 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 without real knowledge of the inner mind of its revolutionary composer. Composers wouldn't do it, for they no doubt knew the impossibility. Ernst Krenek had tried in the 1920s, Berg was afraid of it, and later Schoenberg, Britten and Shostakovitch all refused to touch it. It was the scholars who dared: Clinton Carpenter, Joseph Wheeler, Remo Mazzetti, and 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 diligence and devotion of composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

Why presume to remake substantial parts of a work, like a non-existent Beethoven or Elgar symphony? But the Schubert incomplete work was most probably the carelessness of his friend Huttenbrenner who took away many boxes of manuscripts after Schubert's death and kept them carelessly, losing much over the forty years he held them. And again, the several competent completions of the Schubert 8th symphony (not the same interest in the unfinished 7th) are by scholars, and in general, completions are a scholarly sport, not for the concert hall.

They aren't the real thing.

Copyright © 17 January 2008 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK


From: Alistair Hinton, Bath, UK
Your remarks here are all very well, but your observation that numerous composers declined to complete Mahler's final symphony, whilst correct in itself, omits recognition that the team of four musicians that eventually did so for the first time included three composers -- David Matthews (himself the composer of six extant symphonies), Colin Matthews and Berthold Goldschmidt.

It is also the case that Mahler himself had written at least something in most of the bars of the movements that he didn't fully score, so the task, whilst as immense as the achievement in realising it, did not, at least, involve much decision making as to what music might have gone where; in other words, Mahler had, in some ways, gotten farther with work on those movements than had some composers whose symphonies have been 'completed' by others. It is also worth remembering that Deryck Cooke, who masterminded that 'completion', was at pains to describe it as a 'performing version' rather than a 'completion' per se; his motivation and expectation are clarified in that descriptor, I think.

You mention a preference for hearing a number of under-appreciated British symphonies and later make passing reference to Elgar's Third Symphony. I've written about that work elsewhere, so will not repeat myself here, but the realisation of this, too, was accomplished by a composer; to me, the only justifications for its existence are based upon whether the job has been done convincingly and how much like the possible 'real thing' it is. Tony Payne naturally makes no claims that what he has achieved is 'Elgar's Third Symphony' -- which, of course, is just as well, since it couldn't possibly be that -- but I believe that it is not merely the clumsiness of any alternative title that has brought about the almost general reference to the work as just that. It is, furthermore, the outcome both of years of scholarly research and of personal compositional development on Payne's part, therefore something of the best of both worlds surrounds his achievement.

I do agree that some of these symphonic completions are indeed mere academic point-proving exercises, but would nevertheless gently urge you to exercise a little more care with the tar and the brush!

Why, in any case, should the mere fact of numerous neglected British symphonies prompt a discouragement of symphonic completions?! Can't we have -- and judge -- both on their own respective merits?!

While not entirely on-topic but following your desire to hear more off-beaten-track British symphonies, may I -- as someone far removed from paid-up membership of the Havergal Brian Society -- nevertheless make an impassioned plea for a really good performance of that composer's 'Gothic' Symphony? It's not yet had one that successfully meets its many challenges, yet, to me, it remains one of the finest symphonies ever penned by an Englishman (if only one could say the same for some of his vastly inferior later ones) ...

Oh -- and, while we're about it -- what about the symphonies of a living composer based in Yorkshire? ...


From: Keith Bramich, Tokyo, Japan
... or the music of a living composer based in Bath, UK?


From: Deryk Barker, Canada
I must say I thought he was largely tilting at strawmen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

When he says, regarding Mahler 10, 'Composers wouldn't do it, for they no doubt knew the impossibility', he is ignoring the possibility that they felt it was impossible to submerge their own musical personalities under Mahler's, something far easier for a musicologist to do.

And I also feel that he ignores the fact that musiclovers want to hear these works in some form. Without the efforts of Deryck Cooke, Joe Wheeler et al, Mahler's 10th would be a mere torso of the adagio and (third movement) purgatorio. We'd have no idea of how Mahler intended to continue, whereas his manuscript clearly has a complete musical argument, albeit sans orchestration for most of ii, iv and v.

While I would agree that yet another completion of Schubert 8 (or 7 as it seems to have become) is probably pointless, I'd certainly not say the same for either Brian Newbould's 'completion' of Schubert 10 (should we now call this 9?) or Luciano Berio's Rendering, which is based on the same material, yet not an attempt at completion.

I think that, for the most part, the public (that tiny portion of it that actually cares) will decide. Sussmayr's completion of Mozart's Requiem is certainly an established part of the repertoire, as is Franco Alfano's completion of Puccini's Turandot.

On the other hand, the jury is still out on the 2.however-you-calculate-it completions of Bruckner 9 and no completion of Schubert's 'Unfinished' (and, for what it's worth, if Anselm Huttenbrenner's carelessness was really the cause for its incompleteness, why did Schubert reuse what most musicologists believe was the final movement as the entr'acte for Rosamunde?) has yet won a firm place in the public affection.

I for one am grateful to Deryck Cooke and his fellow Mahlerians, to Brian Newbould, to William Carragan et al -- even to good ol' Franz Sussmayr, for allowing me to hear something of what the composer intended.

'He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases.


From: Karl F Miller
While I don't share your perspective on the completion of the Mahler, I do agree with the thesis of your article.

For me, any concert which does not include one unrecorded or neglected work is a lost opportunity and a disservice to both the art of music and the audience. For me, this obsession with the 'masterpieces' of music is a contributing factor to the decline in the societal relevance of art music.


From: Alistair Hinton, Bath UK
This one's really more for Mr Miller than Mr Standford, but I nevertheless feel that it is of sufficient importance once again to draw a distinction between Mr Standford's completion issue and Messrs Standford & Miller's neglected works issue by repeating my observation that the two are separate matters and should be regarded and treated as such; I don't see an umbilical connection between the two, for those neglected symphonic works that Mr Standford and others would like to hear could be performed without any consequential impact upon completions of other symphonic works.




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