A question of attribution

There was not much time for musing at last night’s rehearsal.  Carlos kept us very busy, focusing in particular (and with more than a little justification) on us basses.  I hope we were singing more in tune at the end of the evening than we were at the beginning!

However, earlier in the week I heard something which really set me thinking.  After playing the well-known Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Russell Torrance of ABC Classic FM calmly announced that nobody knows whether this work was actually composed by JS Bach himself, by one of his musical family, or by one of his pupils.

Really?  And then I remembered that not long ago someone had cast doubt on the true composer of the Bach Solo Cello Suites, citing evidence that they may have been penned by one of Bach’s wives, Anna Magdelena.

It is a not uncommon situation.  We are currently preparing to sing a work whose composition is shrouded in some mystery, and yet we still call it Mozart’s Requiem.

Next week, Anne and I go to hear Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.  Unlike poor old Sussmeyer, who seems to receive little credit for completing Mozart’s Requiem, Deryck Cooke is always given programme billing – maybe because, although his is the most frequently performed, there are alternative versions.

And then there is Elgar’s Third Symphony.  Elgar wrote most of the first movement and sketched out the remaining movements, so this is always billed as Edward Elgar: the sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne – long winded but accurate.

These are all wonderful pieces of music, whatever their attribution, and well worth listening to.  In contrast, a few months ago I watched a TV programme about trying to decide whether a  painting was really the work of one particular old master.  It was fascinating, because it seemed that the proof depended on every single brush-stroke being quite definitively the work of the old master himself.  One stroke by someone else, however close to the old master, would render the painting inauthentic, reducing its artistic integrity, and thus its value, by a considerable margin, however beautiful it might be.

So in one art form, painting, attribution is everything.  And in ours, music, a more expansive view is taken.  And a good thing, too, or we might not have the thrill and satisfaction of listening to and singing many pieces of doubtfully attributed, but nevertheless wonderful, music.


Musing about musing

It is Friday morning. I am sat at the computer keyboard wondering what to write about this week.  Rehearsal was so busy for all of us yesterday that there was not much time for musing.

I could follow up last week’s article about whether melody or harmony come first to a composer (in the case of the definitive opening chords of Regina Coeli it is definitely the harmony, but later on the sublime solos must have surely started with the melody).

I could say something about the wonderful concert of vocal and orchestral music by Tallis, Purcell, Byrd, Gibbons and their contemporaries we heard last week courtesy of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir.

Or perhaps I should re-inforce Roger’s point last night about how much just a few minutes of preparation during the week pays enormous dividends in confidence and poise at the subsequent rehearsal.

“Help!” comes a call from the kitchen, completely breaking any nascent chain of thought that might have been brewing in my befuddled brain. .  “We can’t get into the laundry!  The door from the outside is locked on the inside and the door from the kitchen won’t open!”

Half an hour later, back at the keyboard, having avoided breaking into the laundry by remembering that there is an outdoor door key hidden for just such an emergency, and having disassembled and re-assembled the recalcitrant door handle mechanism, I am left musing whether the great creative geniuses (and that is the correct spelling according to yesterday’s SMH crossword puzzle) had to deal with these mundane situations, and if so how they dealt with them.  Can you imagine, for example, Mozart  helping Constanze with the washing up, or Beethoven clearing a blocked drain?  And yet I suppose that all these people had to cope with the everyday business of life just as we all do.

It’s a sobering, and perhaps a somewhat comforting, thought.

Which comes first?

Did you watch any of the recent Winter Olympics?  Anne and I did not catch much of the coverage, but were very impressed by some of the newer (for us) disciplines with contestants alternately skiing down precipitous slopes and then jumping huge vertical distances, in seemingly endless sequences and all at breakneck speed.  It seemed a bit like a skiing roller coaster.

Carlos spent a lot of time with the sopranos at last night’s rehearsal.  Not that the rest of us were better than them, but rather that they are called upon by Mozart to be vocal skiers of the most modern sort.  The Kyrie in D minor in particular has some very tricky sections for them.  They start on a high note, slip gently and securely down a few adjacent notes, then have to jump nimbly down several notes, land securely and quickly gather poise to leap up, either in one jump or by a series of notes, towards the top again.  And then it starts all over again, but not exactly the same; similar in principle but very different in detail, and often seemingly at a skier’s breakneck speed.  It’s demanding stuff and they did well to have pretty well mastered it by the end of the rehearsal.

During the basses’ down-time, listening to the sopranos, it was easy to fall into musing – which came first for Mozart, the melody or the harmony?  For some composers, we know the answer.  Elgar, for example, carried a music manuscript notebook with him all the time.  As he walked and cycled around the Malvern Hills a melody would come to him; he would jot it down and, once back home in his study, refine it and add appropriate harmonies.  Incidentally, his music manuscript books were made by his wife Alice.  She had a five-nibbed pen for drawing musical staves, and she laboriously drew up all Edward’s manuscript paper with this pen, a ruler and of course, do you remember it, ink.  Quite a remove from the days of composing software!

For Mozart, we do not know the answer.  I sensed last night that it might be a bit of both.  Sometimes the flow of the melody seemed to dominate and to determine the harmony.  At other times it seemed that Mozart wanted to use a particular sequence of chords, particularly when moving from key to key, and then found a tune which made the most of them.  And maybe sometimes, being the genius he was, he thought of them both at the same time.

We will never know what fired Mozart’s great creative genius.  All we can do is to enjoy the fruits of his labours, and make the most of the opportunities we have to share his brilliant creativity with the members of our audiences.

What if…….?

Do you ever ask yourself “What might have happened if…..?” It is supposed to be bad for you, but I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if, for example, my family had emigrated from the UK to Canada when I was just four, as they very nearly did.  Would I now be in Sydney, enjoying singing with the Manly Warringah Choir, or singing somewhere in Canada, or possibly even not singing at all?  There is a host of possibilities.

Likewise, when I was reading about Mozart’s Requiem, I was struck by the number of points at which a modest change in circumstances would have changed the course of musical history.

Suppose Count Walsegg had asked someone other than Mozart to write a Requiem in memory of his late beloved wife, or not thought to have one written at all, would Mozart have even started the composition?  Would some other event have prompted him to write a sacred piece as he tried to regain favour with the Church authorities?  We might have had a different piece from Mozart, say a Stabat Mater or another straightforward Mass, or have had to make do with Salieri’s Requiem (when did you last hear that performed?) or have had to wait for Berlioz and Brahms for the first Requiems of the Romantic era.

And what might have happened if Constanze had decided after Wolfgang’s death to leave the half-written work unfinished?  After all, she married again fairly soon, and the income from completing the commission was not that great, and she had to find a way of satisfactorily explaining the delay to Count Walsegg – not an easy task, and one from which she may well have shied away.  In that case, the music may well have languished unseen in a cupboard and been discovered by a 19th or 20th century musicologist, who hopefully, recognising the quality of the composition so far, would have found someone to complete it.  Mozart’s Requiem as completed by Benjamin Britten, perhaps.  Now that would be interesting!

Then there is the issue of who actually did complete the Requiem.  The version we sing, completed by Mozart’s friend and pupil, Franz Sussmeyer, seems to embody the spirit of Mozart and to have been inspired by him.  But Constanze could have chosen someone else from among the Wolfgang’s many pupils, friends and even musical enemies.  Would that have given us a work so redolent of Mozart throughout?  Would it have stood the test of time and become such a staple of the choral repertoire?  We can only imagine.

Perhaps it is time for the imagination to cease running riot, and to settle gratefully for what we do have.  Mozart’s Requiem is a work full of spiritual exploration brought to light by superbly crafted, sublime music.   And it is  a privilege to be rehearsing and performing it under the direction of such a consummate musician and communicator, Carlos.

I am not much in favour of many modern expressions, but there is one which suits the end of this musing.


What is music?

What is music?  Last night’s rehearsal gave us a timely reminder.

I was reminded of a choir in which I sang many years ago.  We were preparing Bach’s St John Passion.  At the penultimate rehearsal some of us approached the conductor to ask if we could include some dynamics, as we felt we were singing it all at the same volume.  The terse reply was that we could have the luxury of dynamics once we sang each note at exactly the right pitch.  It was something of a dry performance.

Sometimes it is easy to think of music as a series of black blobs on a page, or to go just one stage further and think of the sound that each of these blobs represents.  And when we are singing a piece for the first time, that is what we see and hear – the individual notes converted from their position on the stave to a sound coming forth from our mouths.

Carlos disabused us of that notion well and truly last night.  Even though we had only sung through Domine Jesu  and Hostias once before, it was quite clear right from the start that singing the notes to the right rhythm and pitch would not be enough.  We had to sing phrases rather than a series of single notes.  Loud and soft, fast and slow, legato and staccato, all had to be included right from the beginning.

And that is no mean feat!  At times we struggled, but it was interesting to note how quickly we got the message.  By the break, we were singing these two pieces with reasonably correct notes and quite a lot of light and shade – music indeed.

What is music?  It is certainly a lot more than the notes on the page.  Perhaps a full answer had better wait for another time.