All’s Well That Ends Well

As a major completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony comes out, Michael Oliver asks: Do we really owe it to our great composers to finish their last works?

Mozart’s Requiem is the classic case. Left unfinished at his death, it was completed not long afterwards, mostly by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. It was immediately recognised as a masterpiece; almost immediately people began grumbling about Süssmayr’s well-meaning but ham-fisted rush job. Attempts have been made to play only those bits that are genuine Mozart, but several of them end in mid-air, and even Süssmayr’s patches are better than the holes they leave behind. More recently, completing the Requiem in a more ‘authentic’ style has become almost a cottage industry among Mozart scholars: 12 alternative completions have been recorded so far; others are available.

(Un)Finished Symphonies
It may partly have been fear of another Süssmayr that led Alma Mahler and Helene Berg to forbid anyone to attempt a completion of their husbands’ respective Tenth Symphony and Lulu for so long. Both gave way eventually and most of those composers’ admirers are profoundly grateful for Deryck Cooke’s ‘performing edition of the sketches’ of Mahler’s Tenth (1960) and Friedrich Cerha’s completion of Act 3 of Lulu. Now Remo Mazzetti, Jnr has prepared his own completion of Mahler’s Tenth, and we shall be able to compare it with Cooke’s and decide which sounds more Mahlerian.

Busoni left his opera Doktor Faust unfinished, asking his pupil Philipp Jarnach to complete the final scene after his death. More recently the scholar Anthony Beaumont has discovered Busoni’s own sketch for that final scene – apparently Jarnach didn’t know of its existence – and has been able to suggest a conclusion that is both musically and dramatically more satisfying than Jarnach’s. So far, so good. Late works are always important, especially where they suggest that their composer is still developing. Such as Puccini’s Turandot? And Elgar’s Third Symphony?

Puccini died without giving anyone any instructions about how his opera should end. He had been fretting over that final scene for two years, and he was probably no closer to a solution. Among his papers, some of them actually littered on his death-bed, were three groups of sketches: a rough draft of the final scene, a copy of its text with musical annotations in the margin and single leaves with enigmatic sketches. Approached to prepare a performable final scene Franco Alfano understandably used the first of these, with music of his own invention and recollections from earlier in the opera.

Elgar’s Third is much further from completion than Turandot. It consists of 140 pages of sketches, many of them based on themes originally intended for an unfinished oratorio; they range from several pages of full score to quite lengthy passages sketched out for piano. Sometimes it’s only possible to work out how one sketch relates to another from the memories of his friend W H Reed, with whom Elgar often played through sections of the work. Not long before his death he said to Reed ‘the symphony is all bits and pieces… no one would understand… Don’t let anyone tinker with it.’ Reed and Elgar’s daughter promised that they never would, and while the Elgar Trustees have allowed the sketches to be published and some of them even to be performed in the course of a radio talk, permission to develop the material into a ‘performing version’ has always been refused.

Alfano’s completion of Turandot is deeply unsatisfactory but, as most opera houses acknowledge, better than nothing. Elgar’s Third can never be ‘completed’, but it contains ideas of great beauty and nobility, some of which could only make their full impact if they were orchestrated and speculatively put together. What is the answer?

The final Contrapunctus in Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the fuller draft of Schubert’s Seventh, the sketches for Beethoven’s Tenth, Borodin’s Third, an opera and a ballet by Debussy, Falla’s ‘scenic cantata’ Atlántida and Britten’s last, unfinished work Praise We Great Men (to say nothing of Dickens’s Edwin Drood and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston) – all these have been tentatively completed, without any of the composers’ reputations suffering. Of course, only Schubert could write an ‘authentic’ completion of his Seventh Symphony: if he had gone back to that draft he would have changed it, rewritten sections, perhaps replaced a whole movement. Or maybe he would have decided ‘This is a washout!’ and destroyed it altogether. But he didn’t. It is our property now.

Michelangelo’s last, unfinished sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà, was hewn from an unsuccessful earlier nature. Even if we had detailed drawings of how he intended to finish it, we could not do so without destroying beautiful fragments. And of course some of the Pietà‘s beauty lies in the sense that Michelangelo has simply broken off work on it, that if he were able to take it up again he might well complete it quite unpredictably. Musical sketches affect us in the same way but – unless we are skilled musicologists – only if we can hear them. Preparing a ‘performing edition’ from a composer’s sketch does not destroy it; indeed it may prompt another scholar to do better.

Rescued from the fire
Cooke’s ‘performing edition’ of Mahler’s Tenth revealed that at the end of his life Mahler was moving in new directions. If Mazzetti’s version adds a single insight to Cooke’s we should surely be grateful for it. It is high time that someone attempted, using all of Puccini’s sketches, a more satisfactory final scene of Turandot than Alfano’s, perhaps suggesting something of Puccini’s struggle to find a new path. And the no less forward-looking Elgar Third? Yes, in the depths of depression he had told Reed to burn the sketches. But only a few weeks later he’d told his doctor ‘If I can’t complete the Third Symphony, someone will complete it – or write a better one – in 50 or 500 years’.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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