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Four Great Unfinished Musical Works

Is an unfinished work of art inferior to one that’s completed? Michelangelo’s Prisoners—four sculptures intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II—were left unfinished when the Pope ordered the artist to stop working on the project. Today, they are on view in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia exactly as Michelangelo left them.

Unfinished musical works have different fates. Some remain incomplete, while others are “completed” by well-meaning composers and scholars. Like a fragment of a canvas or the finger of a sculpted figure, there can be great beauty and mystery in an unfinished piece of music. Let’s examine four musical works that—despite their unfinished states—are now considered to be masterworks.

Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem has long been enveloped in myth. A masked stranger commissioning the work made a perfect plot device for playwright Peter Shaffer in Amadeus, but the true story isn’t nearly as dramatic. Mozart was commissioned in the summer of 1791 by Count Walsegg-Stuppach to write a Requiem for his wife, who had died earlier that year. The Count, an amateur musician, insisted that the commission be kept a secret, perhaps because he wanted to pass the work off as his own.

Mozart worked on the piece as his health deteriorated. By the time he died in December, he had finished only part of it. Mozart’s widow, Constanze, asked his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr to complete the Requiem from sketches left by the maestro. Süssmayr eventually admitted he was one of several composers who worked on the piece, but his name is attached to the complete version we hear most frequently today. The Requiem’s choral writing is grand and technically stunning, the passages for solo voices and ensembles expressive as anything heard in opera, and the orchestral writing colorful and dramatic. It is arguably Mozart’s most famous choral work. The Requiem’s first Carnegie Hall performance was by the Schola Cantorum of New York, conducted by Kurt Schindler, on January 21, 1920.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”

Why—after writing two movements and sketching the beginning of a third—didn’t Schubert complete his symphony? It’s one of music’s great mysteries. Some musicologists suggest he simply forgot about the 1822 work. Another possibility is that Schubert knew he couldn’t surpass the two exquisite movements he had already written, so he just stopped. He lived six more years, but never went back to the work.

While there have been attempts to reconstruct the third movement and make a case for adding a fourth based on other Schubert works, the two-movement version has been performed for centuries. Its opening movement’s turbulence is tempered by one of his most beautiful melodies, while the second movement’s wistful lyricism goes from tempest-tossed to serene resignation. The symphony is a Carnegie Hall favorite and was first performed here by Members of the New York Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Elliott Schenck, on November 24, 1894.

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9

Perhaps no composer has had more works bowdlerized than Bruckner. Self-critical and lacking in confidence, Bruckner frequently listened to the criticisms of others and revised his works—some might say unnecessarily. After his death, musicians of meager talent continued to poke at his music, inflicting their own vision upon it.

Bruckner began work on his final symphony in 1887, completed the first three movements by 1894, and began sketches for final movement in 1895. Unfortunately, his health had been failing for years, and he realized he might not be able to finish the work. He confided to a student that if he should die before its completion, his choral Te Deum should be used as the finale—a practice that is largely not followed. Musicologists, composers, and musicians have also attempted to reconstruct a finale from Bruckner’s sketches, but they are rarely performed. The three movements he finished are now the performance standard. The symphony looks beyond its time with boundary-breaking harmonies. The heartbreaking benediction and farewell to life that end the third movement bring the work to a sublime conclusion. It seems inconceivable for the symphony to end any other way. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Karl Muck, gave the New York premiere of the work at Carnegie Hall on November 7, 1907.

Bartók’s Viola Concerto

Bartók was not particularly well-known in the United States when he arrived in 1940, but that changed with the successful premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra in December 1944. Commissions soon started to come his way; in early 1945, star violist William Primrose commissioned a concerto. Bartók began working on the piece, but was hampered by the leukemia that would take his life in September.

Bartók left sketches that were shared with his friend, composer-violinist-violist Tibor Serly. Serly had discussed the work with the composer before he entered the hospital. Working from the skeletal sketches, a jumble of pages that weren’t numbered, a handful of notes, and scant instructions for orchestration, he pieced together a coherent work. Primrose also contributed, editing the solo viola part. Primrose premiered the concerto in 1949, and it instantly became a cornerstone of the viola repertoire. In subsequent years, there have been new editions of the work, but Serly’s reconstruction remains the preferred version. Passionate, highly virtuosic—the soloist is constantly centerstage—and darkly colored, the work has stunning power. Primrose was the soloist when the concerto was performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra on January 19, 1952.

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