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Mozart: Waking the dead

Features - Classical Music

Mozart: Waking the dead

by Tom Ford on December 28, 2016 (December 28, 2016) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
As new fragments come to light, what can the unfinished works tell us about his genius?

Mozart, like Shakespeare, is as popular as ever. Since their respective deaths in 1616 and 1791, each has enjoyed a long, relatively unadulterated seat at the table of Western art, with expanded complete editions of their works materialising every few decades. The audience’s desire to consume the entire output of great creators is only dampened by the publisher’s ability to add anything new. Our reason for surrounding ourselves with everything Mozart or Shakespeare ever penned is simple, as David Cairns has aptly put it: “The better we know their universes – the more we explore its heights and depths – the more marvellous it becomes.”

The difference between Mozart and Shakespeare, however, is the manner in which their complete works have come down to us. Since the 1623 printing of Shakespeare’s Collected Works – referred to by scholars as The First Folio – the general framework of The Bard’s writings has been known. The First Folio contained 36 of the 37 plays (though none of the sonnets), and apart from stylistic edits and added commentary over the centuries, relatively little has changed. Mozart, on the other hand, has endured a more stagnated process, partially because of the gradual discovery and realisation of the aborted works he left behind, now referred to as ‘fragments’.  But in a world thirsty to explore every ‘height and depth’ of Mozart’s universe, might the fragments teach us more about his genius than was previously thought?

Mozart's Burial by Joseph Heicke

When Mozart died on December 5, 1791, he bequeathed the most famous fragment in music history to his wife Constanze and two young sons. Widowed at 29 and without a breadwinner, Constanze enlisted the help of her husband’s students to complete the commissioned Requiem, with Franz Xaver Süßmayer eventually adding the necessary touches to Mozart’s skeletal outline. But besides this celebrated fragment, what other incomplete manuscripts did Mozart leave behind?

Considering we hear little about Mozart’s unfinished works save the Requiem, it may be surprising to learn that around 150 uncompleted fragments survive – that’s one fragment for every fourth completed composition. Fragments may exist for a number of reasons. For example, Mozart, may have set something aside, believing he would return to it one day. Alan Tyson’s seminal studies on Mozart’s paper types demonstrate that the composer would often return to compositions many years later. Another reason for a fragment’s existence is that Mozart may have come to a crossroads with a piece, not sure where to take it thematically, or believing a movement had deviated too far from the rest of the work. We should also consider the possibility that Mozart did indeed complete a work but, for whatever reason, it has come down to us in fragmented form.

Constanze Mozart by Hans Hansen, 1802

Fragments are different from sketches, which are drafts or musical ideas subsequently fleshed out in completed, known works. Constanze’s attitude towards sketches was completely different to that of fragments, having many of the sketches destroyed for their “utter unusability”, while believing the fragments had value – a financial one at that. Still, according to scholar Ulrich Konrad, around 320 sketches or drafts survive of Mozart’s works.

Constanze soon saw the value in publishing the remainder of her late husband’s works, to meet the sudden public demand. In 1797, she met Danish diplomat Georg Nissen, with whom she became romantically involved. Along with the family friend Abbé Maximilian Stadler, Nissen began sorting through Mozart’s unfinished works in the hope of having them completed and published. He also took control of Constanze’s correspondence, as is evident from the way her writing adopts a more eloquent, polished tone. As Nissen later admitted to his step-son, the composer Franz Xaver Mozart, Constanze so trusted his judgement that “rarely did she look at the letters I had written except to sign them”. 

Following the publication of Franz Xaver Niemetschek’s biography of Mozart in 1797, the German publishing firm Breitkopf & Härtel hastily declared that they were preparing a “correct and complete edition” of Mozart’s “authentic compositions”. Having not asked Constanze’s permission, they entered an awkward series of muddled negotiations. Constanze suggested the firm purchase the entire collection, however they baulked, only acquiring 40 manuscripts. Along with those they acquired previously, Breitkopf & Härtel staggered publication of its (far from) Oeuvres completes de W. A. Mozart and by 1806 had released 17 volumes, which included solo keyboard, chamber music with keyboard, Don Giovanni, 20 concertos, 12 string quartets and the Requiem.

Adding to the muddied dissemination of Mozart works was the fact that Constanze had simultaneously been in negotiations with music publisher Johann Anton André. Unlike Breitkopf & Härtel, André was much more willing to absorb all of Mozart’s manuscripts, offering Constanze a healthy payment of 3,150 gulden for what remained. André began publishing many works in excellent editions, however production soon slowed owing to his own fascination with examining Mozart’s manuscripts in scholarly detail. His correspondence with Constanze and Nissen provides a fascinating and invaluable insight into Mozart’s process of composition, particularly in relation to the Requiem. André’s proclivity to study scores rather than publish them saw him hoarding them well into his later life. Subsequently, an enormous portion of Mozart’s works were sold and disseminated across Europe, finding homes in London, Vienna and Berlin. This contributed a great deal to the slow regathering of the ‘complete’ works over ensuing decades.     

Niemetschek’s claim that Mozart had “everything ready in his head before he sat down to write his compositions” is completely dismissed by an analysis of the fragments. Contrary to popular belief, Mozart would often struggle with musical ideas and form. The six string quartets he dedicated to Joseph Haydn demonstrate this, for the manuscripts and surviving fragments of aborted movements show his inability to completely master the genre. The six so-called ‘Haydn Quartets’ were, according to Mozart himself, the “fruit of a long and laborious toil”. 

As well as many reworkings drafted on the actual manuscripts, numerous fragments survive, including a marvellous first attempt at a rondo for the one in A Major, K464. At 170 bars in length, it is now catalogued as KAnh. 72 (464a) and shows no resemblance to the much livelier movement that would eventually replace it. He even reverted its 6/8 time to common time. Mozart, it would seem, simply grew tired of his initial effort, preferring to start over with an entirely fresh batch of ideas. 

Fragment relating to Mozart's String Quartet K458, The Hunt

The B Flat Major quartet, K458, known as The Hunt, also had an aborted first attempt at a rondo; the fragment, however, shows many striking similarities to what would eventually become the finale. The 10-bar morsel shares the same time signature with the completed version and mirrors the notation in certain passages. 

Half a decade later, Mozart was still having trouble with string quartet form, particularly the three he would dedicate to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. The B Flat Major quartet, K589, for example, has two rejected rondo finales. These fragments show Mozart first starting in 3/4 time, writing eight bars for all four voices, continuing on with just the first violin for a further 16 measures before starting again. For the second attempt, he sketched the first 14 bars of a new rondo in F; a brief two-measure appearance by the cello was enough for Mozart to put it aside. Returning to B Flat, but remaining in 6/8 time, Mozart eventually finished what is a less than extraordinary rondo, perhaps completed out of necessity rather than inspiration. 

With other fragments, Mozart’s correspondence explains its destiny, such as the song Bardengesang auf Gibraltar based on a text by Michael Denis. Mozart only set 58-bars before abandoning it. In a letter to his father on December 28, 1782, he provides us with rare insight to his artistic frustration, and the reason he eventually halted the commission: “I am engaged in a very difficult task, the music for a bard’s song by Denis about Gibraltar. The ode is sublime, beautiful, anything you like, but too exaggerated and pompous for my fastidious ears. But what is to be done? The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.”

For all their apparent majesty of form, Mozart’s keyboard concertos also show many false starts and jittery manifestations. Take, for example, one of his most well known: that in A Major, K488. It was again the final movement that worried Mozart’s creative muscle. His first attempt opens with an edgy keyboard solo, certainly not the heroic sonority of his final effort. The second – remodelled in 6/8 time – shows an uncanny resemblance to the final movement of his earlier concerto in the same key: K414. Perhaps realising this, or frustrated by the uninspired second subject, Mozart abandoned this attempt after the 20th measure. The Allegro assai we now know as the third movement of K488 sounds so justified it is difficult to comprehend it took Mozart a couple of efforts to stumble across the right formula. 

Other concertos were begun and never completed, including one for solo violin and keyboard KAnh. 56 (315f). Mozart mentioned this work in a letter to his father on November 12, 1778 while travelling through Mannheim, hoping to premiere it at a proposed ‘academie des amateurs’ led by Ignaz Franzl. Composed in D Major, it is grand in scale, but only 120 bars of a lone, opening movement survive. It appears Mozart wanted to impress, as the orchestration is vast and weighty. Following the solo violin’s entry at the 75th measure (and then the keyboard at the 86th), Mozart focussed his attention, writing only for the soloists. A rhapsodic battle between the two continues for a further 33 measures before suddenly ending, bringing a promising work to an abrupt conclusion. The most likely scenario is that the intended use of the work in Mannheim was cancelled. That Mozart didn’t find an alternate occasion to expand on such an auspicious opening illustrates the insouciant attitude he often displayed towards his musical ideas.

The claim that Mozart had everything ready in his head before he sat down to write is dismissed by the fragments

A similar fragment is the Sinfonia Concertante in A, KAnh. 104 (320e), written the following year. Composed for solo violin, viola and cello, this fragment can be considered a practice run for what would materialise shortly after as his beloved Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in E Flat (K364). Like its more famous (and completed cousin), the fragmented ‘triple concerto’ requires the viola to be scordatura (tuned a semitone higher). While many similarities exist between the two works, what is most impressive about the fragment is the writing for solo cello: with the three soloists entering one after the after at the 52nd bar, the cello leaps forth with a series of flourishing runs, out-voicing the violin and viola. The importance of this 134-bar fragment is not to emphasise what was to come from Mozart; rather, it accentuates what he didn’t do, for nowhere in his oeuvre is there such ostentatious writing for solo cello. 

One of the more insightful qualities of Mozart’s fragments is that they illustrate the order in which he composed. Because they lay frozen in time, they display his systematic approach when it came to putting ink to paper. For the first 25 years of his life -– that is, until he left Salzburg – he seemed to write in vertical blocks. In other words, he would compose an entire passage or subject for all the instruments, not moving on until all the voices were complete. The 70-bar fragment of an oboe concerto in F, K293 (416f) from November 1778 is one of many examples of this process. After relocating to Vienna in 1781, however, Mozart’s compositional process began to change. Thereafter, he preferred to write in horizontal blocks, sketching the outer voices in full, later returning to fill in the inner parts. The fragments of the Requiem display this skeletal outlining, as many of the sections – notably the Rex Tremendae, Recordare and Confutatis – only contain the vocal parts, with the violin and basso continuo lines framing the outer shell. Mozart was obviously planning to return and flesh out the inner instrumentation. Constanze subsequently employed his students to do it in his absence. 

From a scholarly point of view, perhaps the most illuminating fragments are those that stem from his immersion in the music of the Baroque. In 1782, Mozart spent several Sunday afternoons at the residence of his most loyal patron, Baron von Swieten, studying and listening to the music of the old masters – Handel and Bach. The result was a series of compositions moulded on their style, namely fugues, fantasias, contrapuntal studies and exercises. Many were left incomplete, while those deemed worthy were later completed my Maximillan Stadler, such as the Fantasia, K396, and the Andante and Fuga, K402, both for violin and keyboard. The dozens of Baroque-style fragments left behind demonstrate how Mozart was genuinely interested in learning from the music of the past, wanting to embrace its polyphonic mastery. He continued to study, particularly Handel, whose Messiah he arranged, adding flamboyant woodwind (and usuing a German text by van Swieten). When, in his final year, he came to compose Die Zauberflöte with its numerous chorale phrases, and the masterful double fugue in the Requiem’s Kyrie (itself a fragment), it was the result of a long educational process with many aborted attempts along the way.

This then is the value of studying the fragments. There’s no unfinished Jupiter Symphony or Don Giovanni to be found amongst them. But the legend that Mozart wrote down perfectly formed compositions already completed in his head is debunked, illustrating the difficulty he would often face, starting and stopping, returning to ideas and reworking them. While many may be shocked and even disappointed to discover this imperfect side to Mozart’s modus operandi, it proves something infinitely more valuable: that he was human after all. 


All the works mentioned in this article, and more than 100 of Mozart’s fragments, have been recorded – many of them for the first time – as part of the 200CD New Complete Edition of W. A. Mozart, out now on Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon