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Lost & Found: Works thought buried continue to turn up

Features - Classical Music

Lost & Found: Works thought buried continue to turn up

by Gavin Dixon on June 19, 2017 (June 19, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Ahead of the Australian premiere of Stravinsky's Funeral Song, we explore the rediscovered works of the great composers.

A new Stravinsky work arrives in Australia at the end of June, the first in many decades. In fact, his Funeral Song is over 100 years old, but the score was lost for most of the 20th century and only came to light in 2014. The find was a major discovery, but just one of many in recent times, with intrepid librarians and researchers around the world regularly identifying long-lost manuscripts. So how does music by the great composers so often disappear? And where should we be looking for the next long-forgotten masterpiece?

The most famous rediscovery was of the Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major, which made a triumphant return to the repertoire in 1962 with a performance in Prague by cellist Miloš Sádlo conducted by Charles Mackerras. Haydn wrote the concerto in the early 1760s, early in his employment by the Esterházy family, and it was premiered by Joseph Franz Weigl, principal cellist in the Esterházy orchestra. The concerto appeared in a thematic catalogue that Haydn drew up of his own works, but for almost two centuries the music itself was thought lost.

Then, in 1961, Oldřich Pulkert, archivist at the Prague National Museum, discovered the score among papers from Radenín Castle in Southern Bohemia. The castle had been home to Philipp Franz, Count Kolowrat-Krakowsky, a city councillor in Haydn’s day, who must have acquired the score soon after it was written. The castle archive was confiscated during the Second World War, and the Cello Concerto was discovered during inventory work to establish ownership. With its triumphant return to the concert stage, the concerto was hailed as a major addition to the repertoire, and was soon adopted by many of the world’s leading cellists, including Pierre Fournier, Mstislav Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pré.

When works end up languishing forgotten in library archives, it is often because they have displeased somebody. In the case of Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle it was the composer himself who assigned the score to oblivion, or intended to. The Mass was an early work, written in 1820. It was well received at its first performances, but the composer gradually began to doubt its worth and, according to his (entertaining but often unreliable) Memoirs, he eventually burnt the score. And so it seemed until 1991, when the autograph score, the very one Berlioz claimed to have destroyed, turned up in the Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus in Antwerp. 

An inscription on the title page revealed its story. Dated 1835, the message from violinist Antoine Bessems stated that it had been given to him by the composer. Bessems, a native of Antwerp, was a college friend of Berlioz in Paris. His music collection was later inherited by his brother Joseph, and deposited at St. Carolus-Borromeus, where he was organist. Over a century later, the Mass was rediscovered by Frans Moors, Joseph Bessems’ modern-day successor. 

Performers can also be responsible for shelving music that fails to impress. Pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of philosopher Ludwig) commissioned many works for piano left hand after losing his right arm in the First World War. But Wittgenstein’s musical tastes were more conservative than many of the composers he commissioned. One was Paul Hindemith, who predicted Wittgenstein’s response to his 1923 Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), imploring the pianist “I would be sorry if you are not pleased with the piece – perhaps it might sound a bit strange to you at first.” Wittgenstein was predictably unimpressed and never performed the concerto, nor allowed anyone else to see it. 

The score was eventually found in a Pennsylvania farmhouse in 2002. Wittgenstein, fleeing the Nazis, had settled in upstate New York in 1938. After his death in 1961, Wittgenstein’s widow, Hilde, moved to Pennsylvania, and only at her death in 2002 did his huge archive of music become accessible. The world premiere of the concerto, two years later by Leon Fleisher, introduced a significant addition to both Hindemith’s output and to the still small catalogue of works for piano left-hand.

Music of the Baroque era figures large in library archive finds, with Vivaldi and Bach benefiting most from recent rediscoveries. Both were immensely prolific composers, so it is unsurprising that many of their works went astray over the centuries. In the case of Vivaldi, the modern-day interest in his music was kickstarted by the discovery of a huge collection of scores, preserving over 300 otherwise unknown works, in 1926. The scores were thought lost in the Napoleonic Wars, but were rediscovered among private collections and donated to the National Library of Turin. Poet Ezra Pound and composer Alfredo Casella were among those involved in cataloguing the collection in the 1930s, and although the project was interrupted by the war, the newly discovered works quickly spread Vivaldi’s reputation around the world, including at the 1951 Festival of Britain in London, which included a major Vivaldi focus.

More recently, a Dixit Dominus choral setting came to light in Dresden in the 1990s. The work had been deliberately misattributed to Baldassare Galuppi in the mid-18th century, to capitalise on Galuppi’s greater fame at the time. But Vivaldi’s authorship was established by the Australian scholar Jan Stockigt, based on stylistic connections with other Vivaldi works and the fact that one of the movements also appears in a Vivaldi opera. 

In 2010, a previously unknown Vivaldi flute concerto, Il Gran Moghul, was discovered in Edinburgh, in the National Archives of Scotland. The score was among the papers of Lord Robert Kerr, a contemporary of Vivaldi. Kerr died at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but his movements in the 1730s are less clear, and it is probable that he purchased the score while on grand tour in Italy. Back in Dresden, a number of other instrumental works by Vivaldi have since been identified, in the collection of Georg Pisendel, a Dresden-based pupil of the composer. These include a Trio Sonata, now catalogued as RV 820, which is Vivaldi’s earliest surviving work, offering valuable clues about the development of his style.

Discoveries of new works by Bach are just as common, mainly because so much of his music is known to be lost. After Bach’s death, his library was divided among his sons, some of whom were more conscientious than others. So, almost everything inherited by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach survives, but far less of the music that was passed to his brother Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The sheer number of lost Bach works is astonishing, and tragic, including around 120 church cantatas.

Fortunately, then, rediscoveries are a fairly common occurrence, with manuscripts turning up all over the world. In the mid-1980s, a volume known as the Neumeister Collection was discovered at Yale University Library. It contains 82 chorale preludes, written in the hand of organist Johann Gottfried Neumeister (1757–1840), but 31 of these turned out to be previously unknown settings by Bach. In 2004 a wedding cantata, Vergnügte Pleißenstadt, surfaced in Japan, among the affects of the pianist Chieko Hara. She had inherited the score from her husband, Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassado, who probably acquired it from a descendent of Mendelssohn.

Then, in 2005, researchers from the Bach Archive in Leipzig found an aria from a lost cantata, a work written in 1713 as a birthday tribute to the composer’s patron, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. This score had a lucky escape: it had been housed in a library in Weimar that had recently burned down, but the box in which it was stored had been removed shortly before by a bookbinder who had taken an interest in the rare paper on which the music was written. 

Igor StravinskyIgor Stravinsky

The rediscovery of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song is another case of an eagle-eyed researcher identifying uncatalogued documents in an old library collection, but in this case the music had never left the building in which it was first performed. The piece was written in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been Stravinsky’s teacher and also a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, which is now named in his honour. 

It was performed there at a memorial concert in 1909. Stravinsky soon left Russia, fleeing the Revolution and leaving most of his property behind. In the late 1950s, he recalled Funeral Song as the finest of his early works and speculated: “The orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the St Petersburg orchestral libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad [as the city was then named] would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird.”

In 2014, Stravinsky was proved right. The St Petersburg Conservatory underwent a major renovation, requiring its library holdings to be rehoused. During this process, conservatory professor Dr Natalia Braginskaya came across the long-lost orchestral parts, from which she set about reconstructing the score. The first performance of the 21st century took place last December, in St Petersburg, and conducted by Valery Gergiev. 

Now, Funeral Song is being played around the world, with national premieres in many countries throughout the year. Three performances in Sydney will give Australian audiences their first opportunity to hear this important early Stravinsky score, a testament both to his precocious talent and to the diligent research of his modern-day compatriots.


Charles Dutoit conducts Stravinsky’s Funeral Song with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, June 29 – July 1.

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