Monday, April 7, 2008

should we play composers' "discards"?

This evening I'm part of a performance of the Piano Quintet of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. I doubt many of you reading this will have heard it. It is a so-called "early" work (though in fact Vaughan-Williams was 31 years old, which for Schubert would be his last year!) that Vaughan-Williams apparently "withdrew" after a few initial performances. In 2002 the piece was published (presumably because his heirs or publisher stood to make a little bit of money; since V-W died in 1958 he is not able to argue the point), and has since had a few performances, I am told.

My question is: should we play a piece a composer didn't really put his "stamp of approval" on? If we do, should we (as Bernstein famously did at a performance with pianist Glenn Gould) offer a disclaimer to the audience? On the other hand, does a composer have the right to "withdraw" something after it has been heard?

Many years ago I read a book by Milan Kundera called "Testaments Betrayed" where he argued forcefully that we should NOT dig up an author's juvenilia, sketches, etc. and let him or her decide what is fit for the public. However, at the same time I was reading another book, "The First Man," by Albert Camus - the unedited, slightly rough novel he was working on when he died - and it would have been a shame not to have that wonderful book. Likewise, the Mozart Requiem or the Schubert "unfinished" Symphony. I have played some gorgeous early works by Webern and one little sketch (for piano!) by Wagner, and in my opinion the world is better with these pieces than without them.

It makes me think that the composer is not always the best judge of his or her own music. Beethoven assigned opus numbers only to those pieces he deemed worthy of his official imprimatur. There are many others, and truthfully most are awful (in comparison to what we expect from Beethoven). But pieces like the 32 Variations in C minor and the "Andante Favori," neither of which have the Beethoven seal of approval, are better than he seemed to realize. (Maybe this should be another post, but I don't think composers always know the best way to PLAY their own music either - e.g. there are certainly better performances of the Rite of Spring than the one Stravinsky conducts, and at the risk of sounding like an egomaniac I am proud that Leon Kirchner likes my performance of his "Five Pieces for Piano" better than his own, both of which are available on CD).

In the case of this Vaughan-Williams quintet, I'm not sure it should have been resurrected. It has some good ideas, but they are polluted by occasional bad voice leading, counterpoint that loses its way, and the intermittent drought of imagination. (Incidentally, the best moments of the piece remind me of Faure, with its endlessly slippery changes of tonality - this has made the piece very hard to learn!).

If you haven't read Jan Swafford's biography of Brahms, you should - it is my favorite book about music, period. He describes in some detail how Brahms was very careful to destroy anything he didn't want remembered and investigated by posterity (e.g. sketches, letters to Clara Schumann). In some ways this is too bad - it would be interesting to see how Brahms worked (or did everything spring to his mind, Athena-like, without any work?).

I don't know if I've resolved this issue at all. Hmm. What do you think?


ckoh71 said...

wow, max your writing on your blog is so well considered, articulate and thoughtful. unlike the sloppy idiotic thoughts slapped on my own blog. i remember that time when you were reading testaments betrayed and the first man very well! did i give you that kundera book? i know for a while i was kind of obsessed with reading kundera - but then i thought he got a bit didactic and polemical - so his fiction suffered. anyway, welcome to the blog world!

Max Levinson said...

thanks, Chris! Yes indeed you DID give me that book.

I didn't realize you had a blog too... I'll go check it out!

Daniel Jepson said...

I've always thought that as long as a full disclaimer is provided concerning the unpublished status of the piece, there can be no good objection to offering it in performance. If the audience likes the piece, so much the better. If they don't (or don't like it as much as other efforts by the same composer) then surely they can only admire his judicious self-criticism.

If I ever get around to playing the Schumann Fantasie again, I certainly intend to play the original ending. People have presumably heard the published version umpteen times - why not let them hear Schumann's initial conception of the piece, provided they are reminded that this is not the version he ultimately chose? Personally, I suspect that if Schumann had it all to do over again he might prefer the first ending - and that he might even be pleased with the fact that some pianists are prepared to overrule the self-doubt that apparently took hold before he submitted it for publication.