Is it Finished?

By Bruce Duffie

For some reason - human frailty being what it is - we tend to pigeon-hole famous people.  Think of anyone who's been in the recent news or in the standard history books, and you'll immediately remember one heroic act or one line from a speech or one deplorable miscue.  It's that one thing, which is possibly insignificant when viewing a total picture, that makes or breaks the vision of the entire life or career.

This is all brought to mind by Franz Schubert, the Featured Composer for February on WFMT.  He wrote much music in his short life, but it's the "Unfinished Symphony" that gets a lot of attention.  It's his 8th symphony, and even though it's ‘unfinished,' he wrote one more after it.  Obviously, the first question is, "Why was it left in unfinished form?"

A two-movement work, it's running time is roughly a half-hour, which is about right for a symphony of that era.  But Schubert's next work - the ninth symphony, called "The Great C Major Symphony" - is a full four movements, and runs nearly an hour.  This makes it look like those two movements of #8 or really only a half-done opus.  But Schubert offered the work as a complete item for publication, and even though some scholars and conductors have placed various movements to fill out the usual structure, it's probably best to enjoy it as we learned it years ago.

This brings us to another observation, and the opening of a whole kettle of fish.  Just how much meddling should we do to (or for, depending on the viewpoint) a work of art?  Perhaps the circumstances of the incomplete work will determine the outcome.

Most creators move from work to work, offering the completed visions to the world.  When and how the piece is finished is less important than other considerations, though when the fee is involved, it can make a difference.  Some composers have told me that they get things done at their own pace, and when offers come in, the commissioner must wait in line until the time arrives for action.  Other composers say that it's the deadline which gives them the impetus to get the job done.

So, any works left undone fall into two categories: those which were started and abandoned, with or without desire to return for completion; and those which are on the drawing-board at the time of death.

Some famous works are completed by others post-mortem.  The Mozart "Requiem" for example.  Also Puccini's last opera, "Turandot."  At the premiere, the conductor, Toscanini, had a score which was completed by another composer, Franco Alfano, but chose to stop where Puccini did and declare,"At this point, the composer died."  All later performances included the additional ending.
Mahler's 10th symphony had a full first movement, which is often done alone - even recently by the Chicago Symphony led by Michael Gielen.  This work, however, has also been completed from sketches and fleshed out by several musicians.  Some of those renderings are satisfying, others less so.

Then, to continue wading into the morass of score-tampering, we must consider works which exist in more than one version.  Again, there are differing scenarios.  Some revisions were done for subsequent performances or locales.  Each version is totally the composer's own and can be enjoyed as such.  Sometimes, friends of the composer make suggestions, and those are taken or rejected depending on ability and/or politics.  A famous example is Bruckner, and when his massive symphonies are presented, the ‘version' being performed is announced in the program.  Other times, the revision supercedes the earlier version, but these days, we often confront those first-thoughts and decide whether the composer was actually correct in the judgement.  Again, I've asked composers about this, and usually they profess not to care, just so the works are actually done after their own demise.

Another case is where a composer is forced, for reasons known and unknown, to alter his vision and make it performable even though it's not what was conceived.  Last week, I wrote about the Berlioz opera, "The Trojans."  Another operatic tussle involved Verdi's "Masked Ball."  It's clear that he wanted it set in Sweden with King Gustav to be killed.  Censors obligated Verdi to shift the locale to a remote region (Boston), with the King made into the Governor.  These days, that opera is sometimes given with the Swedish setting and characters.  Is that correct?  Would Verdi approve?  He's been dead exactly 100 years now, so why do we care what he would think?

Then we can dig another level and find true errors.  Manuscripts have been mis-read by copyists and engravers, and those mistakes become the known work until someone examines the autograph and makes a case for the correction.  But, as we know, composers often make changes at the last minute, or even after one (or several) performances.  In today's technological world, we have audio and video recordings which state, "Supervised by the Composer."  OK, so that's what he liked at the time, but as they have repeatedly told us, "There is no one correct way to do my piece!"  The expectation is that creative minds will embellish the score and make their own music out of the ideas on the page.

So, who decides?  Often, there are many "solutions" resulting in a plethora of possibilities.  Each conductor must either be scholar himself or decide which scholar to accept.  Every performer will grapple with the printed dots and strokes and, in the end, just give it their best shot.  They will gladly tell you that today's show represents only their current thoughts on the matter, and tomorrow will likely be slightly or radically different.

So listen to each effort and enjoy what is being performed.  Discuss it and analyze it to your heart's content.  But be ready to discover another idea from the same set of notes.  That
is the true beauty of music, and is never finished!

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