Archives for category: Lost Chords

Lost Chords The iconoclastic composer Edgard Varese wrote his symphonic poem Bourgogne in 1907 and its first performance in Berlin three years later caused a scandal. Most of his other early scores were lost, but Bourgogne survived, only to be destroyed 40 years later by the composer himself in a fit of depression. Could the work have provided some early evidence as to how the Varese of the later radical experiments in sound came to be?

As things stand, we know little about the early development of Varese. Other than a single song, the earliest work of his that survives is Amériques, which was composed in 1921 when he was already 38 years old. It was the first piece he composed in New York, after leaving Europe in 1915. Varese described the work as a new start in a new idiom and publicly rejected the 15 or so named compositions he had composed earlier in Paris and Berlin.

What happened to those pieces? Incredibly, most of them were destroyed by a warehouse fire at his publishers in 1918, during the Berlin uprisings that marked the end of the war. Only Bourgogne, and a single song, Un grand sommeil noir survived, because Varese had kept the scores with him. Bourgogne was written in 1907 and premiered at the Bluthner Hall in Berlin three years later –it was the first of his compositions to be performed in public. And it caused a riot – the original of many riots caused over the years by Varese first performances.

Varese had studied in Paris between 1904 and 1907, where his teachers were Vincent D’Indy, Massenet and Widor. Although D’Indy was initially supportive, the gap between the two inevitably widened – D’Indy wanted to create disciples, and Varese would have none of it. He later told Stravinsky “The teachers [in Paris] were all ruled like music paper”. Others were more sympathetic. The poet and librettist Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, the composer Richard Strauss, and the novelist Romain Rolland used their combined influence to help secure the first performance of Bourgogne. Busoni was in the audience for the premiere, and Debussy corresponded with Varese sympathetically both before and after the event.

Inspired by the wild area of Burgundy where he grew up, the symphonic poem seems likely to have included some impressionist and romantic influences, in spite of the composer’s resistance to turning into “a little D’Indy”. Reviewing the performance, however, the Berlin music critic Bruno Schrader described it as “an infernal din, mere caterwauling”. On the other hand Alfred Kerr thought it “full of fascinating beauties”. The audience rioted far more than they did at the performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Mellisande, which was played in the same week. In any case, by 1913 Varese was a veteran of such scandals, to the extent that he could sit through the famous premier of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29th with no surprise. “He simply thought of the Russian composer as having done his duty”, says his biographer, Fernand Oullette.


Lost Chords: Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams had been interested in folk music since he was a boy. In December 1903, he noted down the tune of Bushes and Briars from a 70 year-old labourer who lived in the Essex village of Ingrave. Over the next ten years he collected more than 800 songs, and they had a profound effect on his development as a composer. Particularly significant was a week long visit to King’s Lynn in 1905, during which he collected some 30 songs. One was The Captain’s Apprentice as sung by the fisherman James Carter. This melody was used in the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, the Sea Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony. Another was Ward the Pirate, used as a theme in both the first and second Rhapsodies.

After the visit, Vaughan Williams began to plan a full-scale folk-song symphony. Although such a symphony was never published, he did complete the three Norfolk Rhapsodies in 1905 and 1906, and these were originally planned as the separate movements of the symphony: No. 1 was to have been the first movement, No. 2 the slow movement and scherzo, and No.3 the finale, a march and trio using four folk tunes for its themes. All three of the Rhapsodies were performed during those years and reviewed in the press. But in 1914 the first was heavily revised and the remaining two withdrawn from publication. Two pages of the second Rhapsody and the whole score of the third went missing.

A few years ago I proposed a series of radio documentaries called “Lost Chords” to the BBC, but despite interest and support from some internal producers at Radio 3 they weren’t in the end accepted by the commissioning committee. My plan for the Norfolk Symphony programme was to takes a look at what might have become Vaughan Williams’ first symphony, using evidence from the composer’s scrapbook of folk song material, from contemporary letters, programme notes and concert reviews. I hoped to follow the trail of the King’s Lynn trip – something that folk singer Chris Coe and others have already done – and trace the subsequent use of the material he collected in his music. The picture above shows King’s Lynn as painted by local artist Walter Dexter (1876-1958).

Since then, the Norfolk Rhapsody No 2 has re-surfaced, edited and completed by Stephen Hogger and recorded by the late Richard Hickox. It’s more than possible that the third movement will also be re-discovered one day, giving us a clearer picture of how the complete symphony might have sounded. Meanwhile, fragments remain of the source material. For instance, Vaughan Williams made arrangements with piano accompaniment of a number of the folk songs, including The Captain’s Apprentice and Ward the Pirate, and seven of the field recordings he made in King’s Lynn have survived.

Update: David Matthews was commissioned by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society to compose a new work based on W.A. Morgan’s 1907 programme note for the lost third rhapsody. Norfolk March was premiered at the English Music Festival in 2016.

Lost Chords: Robert Schumann
The final creative period of Robert Schumann’s life came towards the end of 1853. The sequence and exact dates of the works he composed during this time are detailed in the diaries and household books he and his wife Clara kept. The Violin Concerto, for instance, was written in less than two weeks starting on September 21st. Next, he went on to write Marchenerzahlungen for clarinet, viola and piano, Gesange der Fruhle, for piano, and the third violin sonata, all by the end of October. And between November 2nd and the 4th came the Five Romances for Cello and Piano, Schumann’s last complete work before his mental health began to deteriorate. After that there’s only the fragmentary Variations on a Theme in E-flat Major (known as the Ghost Variations and sometimes also referred to as the Letzter Gedanke, or “Last Thought”) before he threw himself off the Old Rhine Bridge in Dusseldorf on February 27th 1854. He survived this suicide attempt, but spent the last two years of his life as a patient at the Endenich asylum near Bonn.

Clara survived her husband by 40 years and became very protective about his reputation. She was particularly worried that his illness might have affected the quality of his last compositions so she withheld many of them, despite encouragement from her friends Brahms and Joachim to have them published. (There’s a later parallel here with Ivor Gurney). Three pieces that survived despite Clara’s wishes were the Violin Concerto (which wasn’t published until 1937), the third violin sonata and the Ghost Variations. The Five Romances weren’t so lucky – Clara is said to have burnt them towards the end of her life. Cellists today listen to the beautiful second movement of the Violin Concerto (which survived because the violinist Joseph Joachim kept a copy of the manuscript and only finally came to light in the 1930s), and mourn the loss.

What remains? There’s really only a tantalizing trail of correspondence, from the time of composition, through Schumann’s incarceration at Endenich, and after his death between Clara, Brahms and Joachim. The fate of the original manuscript is unknown, and no copies have been found. Some related works perhaps provide some indication of how they may have sounded. The elegiac Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op 94, written four years earlier, have sometimes been performed on the cello, transposed an octave down. Then there’s the Cello Concerto in A minor, op 129 of 1850, Schumann’s only full scale work for the cello, now generally considered a masterpiece. Clara, a respected composer in her own right, wrote the Three Romances for Violin op.22 in July 1853, four months before the lost Five Romances. In 1861 Brahms used the Letzter Gedanke theme for his Variations for Piano Duet, op 23 as a melancholy homage.

More recently, cellist Steven Isserlis began championing Schumann’s late works in performances and recordings, and in 1997 he produced a documentary, Schumann’s Lost Romances. And the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger (born 1939) wrote Romancendres for cello and piano in 2003 – a “re-imagining” of the Five Romances in his own terms. Holliger had previously written Gesang der Fruhe (1987), a choral work that incorporates material from Clara’s letters and Robert’s autopsy report. The Holliger pieces (and the Isserlis documentary) explore the relationship between mental instability and musical creativity.

Lost Chords: Sibelius (2)
In July 1945 Sibelius wrote to the conductor Basil Cameron: “I have finished my eighth symphony several times, but I am not satisfied with it – I will be delighted to hand it over to you when the time comes” But a few days later his wife Aino found him sitting before the fireplace feeding sheaths of manuscripts into the flames. Peace and happiness returned to the household after the burning, she said. The composer also mentioned the burning of the symphony to his secretary. What exactly went into the fire that day? Did anything escape? Do the fragments that we currently know of provide enough material for a reconstruction? And will anything else be discovered once Sibelius’ private papers become available for public scrutiny in 2017? Here are four strands of evidence that bear further investigation.

The manuscript of Surusoitto (‘mournful music’), op 111b for organ. This piece, composed in 1931 for the funeral of the artist Akseki Gallen-Kallela, a close friend of Sibelius, has been described as being “like a study of the other world” with its bleak open tones and unresolved dissonances. It was written in just a few days after years of compositional silence from Sibelius – but not until he had made strenuous efforts to get out of his obligation to provide some funeral music. Years later his wife Aino confirmed that its material was taken from the Eighth symphony. How does Surusoitto and other late pieces fit into the story of the Eighth?

The cigarette packet. In the summer of 1932 during a visit to Finland, the pianist Harriet Cohen asked Sibelius about the Eighth. “I don’t believe it exists,” she told him. In response he emptied his cigarette packet, opened it up, drew a set of lines and wrote down the notes of a large spreading chord. “This is the first chord of my Eighth Symphony,” he said. Cohen called it “the only other manuscript” of the Eighth. Where is it now? It’s likely that she would have kept it. Cohen’s London home was bombed during the war and much of her extensive collection of letters and manuscripts were lost, but quite a bit still survives in the archives at the British Museum.

The copyist’s bill. Koussevitzky was promised the first performance of the Eighth for the Spring 1932 season in Boston, and in London a performance was booked, and even advertised, for the following Spring. But messages from the composer continued to shed doubt on how far advanced the compositional process was. Olin Downes was told in June 1932 that the work “is still in my head”. But evidence exists that a fair copy of the first movement was prepared in 1933, and in 1938 a “Symphonie” was sent out for binding in seven volumes. Was this seven full copies or multiple movements with separate choral parts? Was this really the completed work?

The remaining fragments. In 2004, scholar Nors Josephson wrote an article “On Some Apparent Sketches for Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony”, making a case for a possible reconstruction. Since then, another scholar, Timo Virtanen, has sifted through some 800 pages of sketches to identify unknown works of the relevant period – and although he doesn’t believe a full reconstruction is possible, three of the most promising fragments were the subject of a play-through by John Storgards and the Helsinki Philharmonic in October 2011 – and the results can be heard here. The dissonant sound world of opus 111b is clearly evident.

Lost Chords: Sibelius (1)
Scan the opus lists of many composers and there are gaps: lost works, unpublished or suppressed manuscripts, projected works that were never completed, published works that were initially performed but later withdrawn. This series investigates four such pieces. What, if anything, is left of them today, and if restored what would they add to our knowledge of the composer?

We start with a famous lost work: the Symphony No 8 by Sibelius. The Eighth might have been his crowning achievement, and its publication was anticipated for over three decades. But when Sibelius died in 1957 his family told the world it no longer existed and that the composer had destroyed it himself in 1945.

After the symphonic poem Tapiola appeared in 1926, new compositions from Sibelius all but ceased, and from 1928 until his death three decades later at the age of 92 very little was published. What happened to the Eighth Symphony, which the composer had apparently started work on as early as 1924? Despite frequent enquires from friends, conductors and publishers Sibelius always remained evasive, though Koussevitzky was promised a first performance for the Spring 1932 season in Boston, and there is documentary evidence that a fair copy was prepared by Sibelius’s regular copyist, Paul Voigt, in the late summer of 1933. But in 1945 at Ainola, the composer’s forest retreat 40km north of Helsinki, Sibelius was discovered in the act of burning a large number of manuscript pages by his wife Aino. Was this the end of the Eighth?

What caused Sibelius’ thirty year silence from composition and drove him to suppress and perhaps destroy the Eighth? The theory that he just had nothing left to say after the Seventh symphony and Tapiola doesn’t fit the evidence of numerous letters, memoirs and records. These reveal that the symphony was almost certainly complete by the early 1930s. A decade later in 1943 Sibelius’ diary indicates that his mind was still engaged with the problems of symphonic composition. “Only very few understand what I have done and want to do in the world of the symphony,” he wrote. “The majority have no idea what it is about.” In the second part of this post we will take a look at four key strands of evidence that shed some light on the lost work