A Mozart Rediscovery and an Ethical Question

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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Manuscripts, Musicology, New Discoveries. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Mozart Rediscovery and an Ethical Question

  1. I shared this story with my undergrad survey class today, because we were studying music under the Third Reich and the story of Götz fleeing Munich with an anonymized Mozart MS as the sum of his worldly goods was just too poetic to pass up. How wonderful is the detail that the ship carrying the cover page was torpedoed! (well not wonderful for the people on that ship, but you know…) They were struck by the fluctuating monetary value of the MS… that Mozart manuscripts would have found no buyers in the 1920s and sold for cheap in the 1930s, and now we can’t imagine them as anything but priceless.
    Anyway, my students were curious about access to treasures like this – how realistic/exaggerated is the fear of a musical manuscript disappearing into a private collection, never to be photographed or digitized or published in facsimile or transcribed again? You can see the first page of the this Kyrie on the Sotheby’s site and in all the newspaper articles, so can we assume that the other four pages will be as accessible? How is ownership likely to impact scholarly knowledge?

  2. Pingback: Uniqueness, access, and value | Still a musicologist

  3. These are fair questions. Chopin’s Veni Creator and its companion vocal piece were composed for the wedding of Stefan Witwicki and Zofia Rosengardt in 1846. I’ll quote from the 1986 English-language edition of Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s *Chopin: Pianist and Teacher*, p. 189 [French title: *Chopin vu par ses élèves*]: after noting Chopin’s somewhat stormy relationship with Rosengardt, his pupil, Eigeldinger writes: “Nevertheless, the clashes of temperament did not prevent Chopin from being a witness at his pupil’s marriage to Zaleski, on 28 November 1846 at the church of Saint-Roch; indeed, quite uniquely, he even composed for this occasion two religious pieces, including a *Veni Creator* — the unknown and unpublished autograph is thought to be in the possession of the Bourbon-Parme family.”

    As a friend pointed out on my FB page, Beethoven composed a two-movement oboe concerto in his Bonn years that survived at least until the 1850s at the Diabelli publishing house. Given the progress of the Beethoven cult by then, and where it was held, how could we imagine that this piece didn’t “disappear,” rather than just disappear? Also, the Sotheby’s notes explain that a few Mozart scholars were made aware of the existence of this Kyrie in the 1980s. Did they study it? Did the wider Mozart world know about it? (I’m tempted to ask: were any of The Chosen Few American…?) This is thirty years later, now, so surely the reproduction of the ms. on the Sotheby’s page *now*, but not *until* now, underscores my concern about the availability of such things.

    For the Du Fay and Monteverdi and so on, those are legendary losses, along with the entire holdings of the Great Library of Alexandria. Hope springs eternal.

  4. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Damn. Wrong poet. As Eigeldinger’s quote clarified, Rosengardt married Bohdan Zaleski, not Stefan Witwicki.

  5. It’s a fair point, that the Mozart Kyrie has been “known of” but not accessible for ~30 years.
    Those references to lost/”disappeared”/hoarded Chopin and Beethoven pieces are so enticing!

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