I’ve Started so I’ll Finish

You have a favourite composer – but do you want to hear their every note? Michael Oliver asks if buyers of complete editions are guardians of new discoveries or insatiable collectors who don’t know when to stop.

How do you feel about the NMA? I mean the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, or New Mozart Edition, which, when it’s complete – which it very soon will be – will run to 130 vast volumes, plus so much critical commentary and supplementary material (a whole volume on Mozart’s handwriting, for example) that would take you several years to read it all.

There are three possible reactions. Enthusiastic rejoicing that every scrap of music that he ever wrote is now available in a reliable and practical edition: now there’s nothing to stop us hearing any of it. Or you could take the view that NMA is fine for scholars, but it doesn’t affect us very much: frankly, who cares that a fragment of a sonata movement that Mozart wrote when he was 15 is now available, when most of us haven’t had time to listen to all his complete and mature piano sonatas? But a third reaction might be apprehension that this mania for completeness is doing Mozart no good. Wouldn’t he have admitted that the only thing that’s interesting about a good many of his early works (those he wrote before about the age of 17, say) is the name on the title-page?

I have a weakness for the first point of view, I must admit. I’ve just listened to that snippet of a sonata – it’s all of 39 seconds long – and it’s delightful: just two thoroughly Mozartian tunes, and then it breaks off. In later life Mozart did this sort of thing quite regularly: writing out just the opening of a piece and then waiting to complete it until there was some prospect of performance, having already worked out the rest of the movement in his head. Was he really doing that already at 15? Amazing. Or was he already so shrewd he realised those two themes aren’t quite contrasted enough for a sonata movement? In either case it’s a fascinating piece of evidence, and I’m grateful for the chance of hearing it. There are about 140 other sketches, fragments and incomplete pieces by Mozart, and yes please: if I can find the time I will hear them.

There’s another aspect to this, though. I’ve recently been compiling a catalogue of the works of Benjamin Britten. Every time I think I’ve got it right, along comes the Britten Estate, who have discovered another of the great man’s early piano pieces or an unpublished folk-song arrangement, and my neatly laid-out pages need yet another re-jigging. Didn’t Britten lock some of those pieces in his bottom drawer simply because he didn’t think they were good enough to publish? Very likely, but towards the end of his life he sifted through some of those early manuscripts himself and allowed them to be published. Not, surely, because he thought they were as good as his masterpieces, but because he found them intriguing, and thought others might do so.

Praise we non-great works
With Britten as with Mozart there exists a number of incomplete works and sketches. One of them that he was working on until a few weeks before his death was touched up and made into a performable fragment by his musical assistant Colin Matthews. It’s called Praise We Great Men. It only hints at what the complete and revised work would have been like, but we’d be the poorer without it: it suggests that even a few days before he died he was still moving forward, not merely repeating himself. Britten’s very first stage work remains unpublished and unperformed: a ballet score called Plymouth Town. it’s very early, and I don’t suppose it’s a masterpiece, but even if it’s quite ordinary I can’t see that fact harming his reputation; I can’t wait to hear it.

For his time, Mozart was something of a special case. For the last ten years of his life, the period when he wrote a high proportion of his greatest works, he was a freelancer. His manuscripts were his working capital, so he took good care of them. Of his 600-plus compositions, over 400 survive in manuscript, a higher proportion than with any other eighteenth-century composer (save Handel, another freelancer). So the number of lost works by Mozart is small, and that’s true of pretty well every composer since Mozart.

Is there anything left to find?
So all the grubbing around among sketches and fragments is what Mozart scholars are reduced to, knowing that the chances of covering themselves with glory by revealing a lost masterpiece are not much better than zero? Well, some of them have hopes, even so. One distinguished and elderly Mozartian told me that if he could find authentic manuscripts of just one of the early ‘dubious’ symphonies (there are no fewer than nine of them for which there’s no cast iron proof that they’re by Mozart at all) then he would die a very happy man. Another wistfully hopes that he might yet find Mozart’s lost cello concerto. But on the whole, yes: the great discoveries have been made. But those unfinished fragments and sketches (if we turn to Beethoven, there are several thousand surviving sketches, most of them still unpublished) are much more than meagre substitutes. In a way you’re nearer to Mozart at work in those fragments than in the polished masterpieces. If you try to work out why he didn’t finish this or that fragmentary movement, you get even closer to him by comparing it with a movement that he did finish, but for which a rejected draft also survives.

And yes: even that group of tiny pieces collected together as K 1 is worth our notice. Three days before his fifth birthday Mozart played a complete piano piece for the first time in his life. His father proudly recorded that it took him half an hour to learn it. He learned another piece a month later, and another a month after that. The next piece he learned he wrote himself.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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