Desecration or Restoration?

Sir Edward Elgar begged to have his uncompleted Third Symphony destroyed; Michael Oliver considers the ethics of its completion.

Who owns a work of art, or rather: who has rights over it? In the case of a sculpture or painting, whoever buys it has pretty well absolute rights, and can refuse to allow anyone else to see it, unless the artist has insisted otherwise in the sale agreement. Works of art that cannot be appreciated unless they are performed (plays, music, ballets) or reproduced (books) are governed by the laws of copyright. But in the case of the performing arts the creative artist gives up some ‘rights’ by simply allowing his or her work to be performed. No performance can be perfect, no two performances the same. Most composers accept, even welcome this; like it or not they also accept that allowing their work to be performed means allowing it to be performed badly.

After their deaths copyright ensures that artists’ descendants go on benefiting from performances, nowadays for 70 years – pretty fair if you consider how few composers make a decent living from their works during their lifetimes. But after their deaths they’re even less well protected against performances which grossly misrepresent them. Not much of a worry nowadays, you might think, with everyone much more aware of authenticity, of fidelity to what the composer intended. But not everyone greatly cares about authenticity, and after copyright expires anyone may do what they please with any piece of music.

I remember the sense of outrage in Britain when a light-hearted parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado appeared in the USA (at that time not a signatory to international copyright conventions). The Hot Mikado, it was called, the cast was black, Gilbert’s words were rewritten and Sullivan’s music was, as we called it then, ‘jazzed-up’. This, people thought, was the thin end of a nasty wedge. Whatever next? The Hot Messiah? There were calls for a law to protect masterpieces from desecration. After all, anyone who broke into the Louvre and drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa would be regarded as a vandal and prosecuted.

But, indeed, no one could prosecute Marcel Duchamp when, in 1919, he took a picture postcard of the Mona Lisa, added a beard and moustache and exhibited it as his own work. He was making a point about the excessive reverence paid to the art of the past, but he left Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece untouched. The Hot Mikado left Gilbert and Sullivan’s work untouched, of course.

What about works that composers have left unfinished, even in some cases with instructions that they should never be performed? The most famous case, now in the news again, is Elgar’s Third Symphony, which at his death consisted of a series of fragments, of which he said to his friend the violinist Billy Reed ‘Don’t let anyone tinker with it… No one would understand… I think you had better burn it’. He didn’t, thank goodness, but until very recently Elgar’s family and the trustees of his will have insisted that the composer’s deathbed wishes should be honoured.

Shortly before Michelangelo’s death he burned a large number of his drawings. Is there anyone who doesn’t regret this, and that Sibelius did the same with however much he had sketched or composed of his Eighth Symphony? In Manuel de Falla’s will there’s an absolute prohibition against any of his works (including his ballets and his opera La vida breve) being performed on stage – in his austere old age he’d become convinced that theatres were evil influences. Does anyone regret that his deathbed wish was not honoured – on the grounds that it abrogated contracts already entered into?

Who really owns a work of art once death has robbed its creator of any chance to improve it further? Surely we do, and we have the right to do what we choose with it, provided we don’t destroy it. We don’t have the right to ‘complete’ Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, because doing so would inevitably ruin what Michelangelo left us. Any of us can stand in front of that enigmatic masterpiece and speculate about how he might have finished it. But very few of us are in a position to do the same with Puccini’s sketches for the final scene of Turandot, or Mahler’s for the unfinished sections of his Tenth Symphony or Elgar’s for his Third. To do that we need not only to read music but to have a detailed knowledge of how these composers generally used their sketches; ideally we need to be trained composers ourselves.

So we need someone with that knowledge and training so that we can hear those sketches and make sense of them. Sometimes it will be possible with skill, insight and inspired guesswork to produce a fairly convincing idea of what the composer might have written if he’d lived long enough. Sometimes all we can hope for is a sort of framework on which the sketched fragments can be hung – rather like those damaged frescoes where we can only speculate about what the blank spaces originally contained. But sometimes the restorer, working from a contemporary copy or description, can add a few rough lines indicating that this or that Saint’s missing right arm was originally pointing to heaven. A musical ‘restorer’ can sometimes do the same, and suddenly the composer’s rough sketch for a moment takes on three dimensions and we recognise a fragment of an unknown masterpiece.

A few days before telling Billy Reed to burn his sketches Elgar said to one of his doctors ‘If I can’t complete the Third Symphony, somebody will complete it – or write a better one – in 50 or 500 years’. Anthony Payne has sought to do neither, but simply to give us a vision – sometimes tantalising, sometimes dazzling – of what the Symphony might have been like if Elgar himself had lived to finish it. Would he have regarded that as ‘tinkering’ or as a fine composer subjecting his own great gifts to Elgar’s genius, in an act of loving homage?

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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