Monday, January 30, 2017

Bruckner's Farewell to Life

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony can perhaps be considered his farewell to life. While he completed the first three movements of his final work, the finale remained unfinished at his death. But did Bruckner sense that this work would be his last? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Bruckner was known to not have confidence in himself or his work. He often doubted his achievements and would laboriously re-work his compositions to follow the advice of his peers, even when the advice was unfounded. With his Ninth Symphony, Bruckner spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out just how to conclude his work. He contemplated using his Te Deum from 1884 but soon dismissed the idea. When he died, he left hundreds of sketches for the finale that his student Ferdinand Löwe ended up re-working and publishing in 1903. Sadly, Löwe destroyed the original, this publication barely resembling Bruckner’s original ideas for the piece. It wasn’t until years later that Bruckner’s Ninth received a performance true to the original score, without a finale. Scholars believe that the three-movement version stands alone beautifully, the Third Movement harkening back to some of Bruckner’s earlier works including the Mass in D Minor and the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Is it possible that Bruckner subconsciously knew that his end was on the horizon, thus creating the perfect “farewell” movement with reflections from his past musical accomplishments?

Although some have attempted to reconstruct the finale for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, it is most commonly performed as a three-movement symphony in concert halls today.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Russian Folk in Prince Igor

Alexander Borodin composed one opera during his lifetime—Prince Igor—and it was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1887.

Borodin wrote his own libretto for Prince Igor, and based it on the medieval epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. The story tells of a Prince Igor who, along with his son, goes on a military campaign against the nomadic Polovtsi tribe. He is captured and later escapes, leaving behind his son who falls in love with a girl from the tribe.

After Borodin’s death, fellow Russian composers Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov took up the challenge of completing the work. Borodin didn’t leave behind very good guidelines as to his intentions for the opera, but rather disorganized fragments. This made finishing the opera quite challenging!

Listen to a few excerpts from the finished product, completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov—the Overture and the famous “Polovtsian Dances.” Listen for the robust rhythms and Russian-folk feel (Borodin actually researched Russian folk music from nomadic tribes!)

Monday, January 23, 2017

An Opera by Borodin

If you attended the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenocity concert in 2014, you may remember the “Polovtsian Dances” by Alexander Borodin (1833–1887) that accompanied the Charley Harper tribute. This famous work comes from Borodin’s only opera, Prince Igor, a work he dabbled with for eighteen years and then left unfinished at the time of his death. While the “Polovtsian Dances” is quite popular and often played by orchestras around the globe, the opera itself is rarely performed outside of Russia.

Borodin was a member of what we call the Mighty Handful, a group of late 19th-century Russian composers who rejected Western styles in favor of more traditional Russian approaches. Also in the group were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Mily Balakirev. Because Borodin’s main career was as a chemist and he only composed on the side, it took him quite a while to get through many of his works. That explains why his opera based on the medieval epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, took years of work, and remained incomplete at the end of his life.

But what ever happened to Prince Igor and how is it that we have a complete product today? Find out when you join me next time in Clef Notes.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bartok and Tibor Serly

This month Clef Notes is looking at music that was left unfinished, whether intentionally, or as a result of the composer’s death. Last time we began looking at the story behind Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto – a work left unfinished when the composer’s life was taken in 1945 by leukemia. Violist William Primrose commissioned the piece, and it wasn’t until 1949 that he finally premiered it. But how did he premiere a work that was left as a sketch at the composer’s death bed?

A man by the name of Tibor Serly completed the two works left unfinished at the time of Bartók’s death. The Third Piano Concerto was just about complete, only needing minor adjustments in the final measures. The Viola Concerto, however, was still in sketch form on manuscript pages. The only indication Bartók left in regards to the instrumentation was that it should be “more transparent than in the Violin Concerto.”

Serly was the perfect person to take on such a task. A good friend of Bartók and a violist, he understood how to compose for the instrument and knew the composer’s style well. In order to complete the work, he had to piece together the manuscript pages and figure out the order and exactly what Bartók intended for this great concerto. Listen to the finished product here and comment with how you think the piece turned out.

Did you know that Tibor Serly played viola with our own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the 1920s?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bartok's Viola Concerto

Violists around the world know that, compared to the violin, their solo repertoire is rather limited. That is likely why 20-century violist William Primrose commissioned Béla Bartók (1881–1945) to write him a Viola Concerto in the 1940s. Unfortunately for Primrose, Bartók never got around to finishing the concerto. Leukemia took his life in 1945 leaving two works incomplete – his Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto.

While the Third Piano Concerto was just about complete (the only thing still needing a few tweaks was the final measures of the work), the Viola Concerto was still sketches on manuscript pages without any notes in regards to instrumentation. Bartók composed in ink so the pages were likely difficult to read as he scratched out passages and re-wrote portions.

While William Primrose probably thought Bartók’s death would mean the end of his commissioned concerto, little did he know that he would get an opportunity to premiere the work in 1949. Read how this premiere came to be next time in Clef Notes.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Anthony Payne's Completion of Elgar's Symphony

It is not uncommon for music to be left unfinished, whether a composer abandons a work, or whether death prevents completion. After receiving a commission from the BBC to write his Symphony No. 3, Elgar began sketching out his ideas. It wasn’t long after this, however, that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died, leaving his final symphony unfinished. But what ever happened to the sketches the composer left behind?

During the 1970s, composer Anthony Payne came across the sketches that Elgar left behind. He spent years studying the sketches and compiling what he thought may be the symphony Elgar sought to write. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the BBC commissioned Payne to complete a symphony based on these sketches. The work was premiered in 1998.

What is your opinion of the symphony? Do you think it was wrong of Payne to take the liberty of writing Elgar’s work based on these sketches? Or do you think by completing the deceased composer’s work, he helped to carry on Elgar’s legacy and give voice to something Elgar was never able to finish?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sketches from Elgar's Third Symphony

Edward Elgar’s Third Symphony was left unfinished. But why?

It had been quite some time since Elgar composed a major work. He lost motivation after the death of his wife in 1920 and it wasn’t until 1930 that inspiration struck and he produced several works including the Severn Suite, the fifth Pomp and Circumstance march, and the Nursery Suite. After being prompted by critic George Bernard Shaw to write a Third Symphony, Elgar received a commission from the BBC and began sketches for his final symphony—one that would remain unfinished.

The composition process for the Symphony No. 3 moved rather slowly. Elgar worked on The Spanish Lady opera at the same time and also began to suffer from health issues that delayed his progress.

In 1933, Edward Elgar was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He would never complete his final symphony, but left behind plenty of sketches.

The story of Elgar’s Third Symphony does not end there. Join me next time to hear what became of the sketches that the composer left behind. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

An Unfinished Puccini Opera

This month we are looking at famous music throughout history that was left unfinished by its composer. This week, we are specifically looking at the story behind Puccini’s Turandot, which was left unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924. Last time we learned that Puccini orchestrated Acts I and II before his death, however hadn’t quite achieved what he dreamed for the finale duet scene of Act III.

Following Puccini’s death as a result of a heart attack and throat cancer, Franco Alfano stepped up to complete the final scene of Turandot, doing his best to stay true to Puccini’s intentions for the opera. The project was overseen by Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the world premiere of the opera. During the first performance of Turandot, Toscanini left out Alfano’s finale and ended the opera where Puccini had left things at his death.  

What do you think? Would you prefer Turandot to suddenly end unfinished where the composer left off at his point of death? Or would you prefer the story to wrap up using Alfano’s ending? You can listen here

Monday, January 2, 2017

Unfinished Music: The Mystery Remains

This month on Clef Notes, our topic is Unfinished Music: The Mystery Remains. We’ve discussed this topic once before, but we only touched the surface of music that falls into this category. Let’s continue to explore the topic over the next few weeks.

Throughout history, there are many examples of compositions by well-known composers that, for various reasons, were left unfinished. For obvious reasons, this idea of unfinished music by some of the “greats” in music history is intriguing which is why scholars seek to find answers for their abandonment. While historians have been able to find adequate answers for many incomplete works, others still leave us with a sense of speculation.

The unfinished work I’d like to look at this week has a very obvious reason why it was abandoned—the composer’s death. Giacomo Puccini's (1858–1924) final opera, Turandot, used Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandotte as its source. The story is set in China and based on folk stories of a princess who uses riddles to test her suitors and to deem whether or not they are worthy to have her hand in marriage. For those who answer any of the riddles incorrectly, she has them killed. The opera is one of Puccini’s greatest, containing some of the most beloved opera arias of all time including “Nessun dorma!”

Puccini worked alongside two librettists for his Turandot: Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami. After completing the orchestration for the first two acts by 1924, including a large orchestra with organ and exotic Chinese themes, Puccini decided he was unhappy with the text for the final love duet in Act III. He envisioned the finale to his opera to be grand, with a big, memorable duet scene. The text the librettists provided just wasn’t what he had in mind for the powerful ending he hoped to achieve.

Unfortunately, Puccini died before he ever had the opportunity to work with his librettists to complete the ending to Turandot. After undergoing surgery to help fight throat cancer in 1924, Puccini suffered a heart attack and died. But what would happen to his masterpiece that he left unfinished? Join me next time for the rest of the story.