An incomplete C-Minor Kyrie by Mozart, known of but missing since 1936, has resurfaced and is going to be auctioned by Sotheby’s. Musicologists are, legitimately, barking at it like Fido at a tennis ball. A new Mozart manuscript? This is the best day of my life!
The extent to which something like this gets news coverage, by the way, seems to vary. I still remember the public-radio tizzy in September 2008 when a single Mozart violin part was discovered, given a high-profile “premiere” with the violinist surrounded by microphones and press and all that. It was, of course, breathlessly termed “a rediscovered Mozart masterpiece.” Masterpiece. A single violin part from an unfinished work. Leaving that aside: such discoveries happen, periodically, and the extent of news coverage probably depends on what else is happening in the news and media moguls’ feelings about arts coverage. There was the unknown J. S. Bach strophic aria that surfaced in 2005, for example. Just recently, a previously unknown, complete Mendelssohn song, “The Heart of Man is Like a Mine,” has likewise appeared, and premiered on a BBC show. Whether they are “masterpieces” or not, such pieces invariably tell us things we didn’t know—that young Sebastian composed in an archaic form, for example, or how Mendelssohn composed when he was writing a private commission. As I’ve written before, all musicologists dream that someday someone will open a drawer and there will be…your heart’s desire, be it Berlioz’s early Prix de Rome cantatas, Orphée and Sardanapale, the Brahms style hongrois pieces that, if I recall, Eugenie Schumann remembered his playing but never found in his published works, more lost symphonies from Debussy’s Russian sojourn in the early 1880s, whatever. Hope springs eternal.
So here’s this incomplete Mozart Kyrie, the beginnings of a large-scale work. Naturally, interest and speculation are at high pitch, and I mean in the scholarly community, not just culture marketing types and NPR. On the American Musicological Society listserv, however, a question was raised about the relationship between such scholarly interest and bidding price, with the pointed observation that people in the art world would keep shut about a similar discovery because generating additional interest would have a clear effect on the money such a thing would generate. Shouldn’t we all keep shut until the thing is safely sold? This stuck in my craw, and I responded:
“I don’t see an ethical issue with the discussion of a newly emerged, long-lost manuscript. Name your top ten Mozart scholars: if every last one of them gets in a lather about it, they still teach at universities and are not in a position to buy the thing themselves. Curators of Special Collections, librarians in major institutions etc. are well aware of such things anyway, and would be ahead of the Mozart scholars in making their plans.
“If, say, Mozart’s lost trumpet concerto K. 47c were to suddenly appear (presumably surrounded by Du Fay’s Requiem Mass, Chopin’s Veni Creator, all of Monteverdi’s lost operas, and everything else burning a hole in my subconscious, wanting to be heard), I cannot imagine that scholars of those composers would somehow be expected to keep shut until the manuscripts had disappeared into private collections and became unavailable for consultation. Far better that people should be aware when such things surface, so that the interest generated would make it more likely for people to at least get their hands on high-quality reproductions.
“Besides, I find the ethical issues involved in expecting people to muzzle themselves about important discoveries to be far more problematic.”
A ridiculous subplot: my letter was not published on the list because 1) there were two appended letters to my post and regulations allow only one, and 2) alternative wordings for “gets in a lather” and “muzzle themselves” were suggested, because it was feared that some would find these phrases inflammatory. While acknowledging the first point, I simply drew the line on the other two. My suggestion that unnamed Mozart scholars might “get in a lather” about something is unacceptably inflammatory?! I withdrew the post, on enough-is-enough-and-that’s-how-I-write-goddammit grounds (with the huffy observation that such heavy-handed editing might have something to do with the moribund status of the AMS list, which earned me an even huffier response), and so I print it here.
That silliness aside, I’d just like to say that I find the idea of self-censorship when an important discovery occurs completely unacceptable. When Beethoven’s own additions and modifications to the Fourth Piano Concerto surfaced, were we required to keep shut? No, and the debate merrily continues: Beethoven made later emendations and we should all play the piece this way, now; no, that’s ridiculous, those were only to beef up the piano part for a performance with string quartet, we should play it as we normally do. If some celebrated Lost Work is discovered, the idea that we are to keep quiet while waiting for it to be sold, possibly into a collection where the scholarly world would have no access, is both impractical and wrong. I confess to the same sort of frustration, here, that scholars have had with the Dead Sea Scrolls people, about whom there have been myriad complaints over the years—moving too slowly, gatekeeping, materials unavailable for study, and so on. Although there is the natural inclination to be the first to get something out, musicologists tend very much toward the hive-mindset regarding availability of sources and discussion of what they mean. The internet has been a boon for us in this way (and probably virtually all other disciplines, also): find something interesting, slap it out there, and let’s start talking about it.
The idea of staying shut so that unimaginably rich people and auction houses can pursue their business without such “interference”? Especially given the why-can’t-you-get-good-grades-like-your-older-brother tone, with deferential hat tipped toward another discipline (in this case Art History)?
Don’t bring it up again, please.