Reconstructive Surgery

Currently, it seems that my every professional moment not devoted to teaching, individual student needs, or offending colleagues is being spent trying to read the mind of a certain major nineteenth-century composer. I am in the midst of a project that involves an almost-complete score, a work that is laid out, bar for bar, from beginning to end, but because of haste and circumstances lots of parts have holes in them, blank measures and so on. My contribution is anything written for piano: to parse the compositional shorthand, to draw conclusions about what one hand is probably doing from what the other one is doing, and ultimately to reconstruct the piano part from educated surmises, cognate sources, and other works with the same authorship. What will later (I hope!) seem like the most commonsensical decisions, I am finding, currently seem like a mix of hubris, gall, and ignorance when one has to pull them out of the air and take responsibility for them.

(Note: I am not being cutesie here by not identifying composer and work; it is standard practice, in such situations, for all definite information to be withheld until the piece is premiered.)

I don’t believe there is formal training for such a task; one simply has to dig in—either out of desire, or because there weren’t any convenient exits when the solicitation was made—the music stopped and I didn’t have a chair, in other words. One small relief is that it is an occasional work, put together for a particular event, and as such is—ahh—not exactly Beethoven’s Tenth, in terms of immortal value. Nonetheless, it is a real lesson in humility to make a decision (“I’ll use this passagework here”), try it out, and have it sound like utter garbage. Or, a bit later, to have it sound not bad but uncharacteristic: inoffensive but flat, or OK but stylistically fifty years off, or just …wrong. Good, even, but wrong. One of the skills to be learned here is patience, because there are conflicting sources to be brought into harmony with each other (sketches, drafts, etc.), and there is a lot to consider; many wrong decisions to be made before the right one is found (he said bravely). Had this work survived intact it would have been widely performed and recorded now—at least on Complete Works projects!—thus, a part of the repertoire. Believe me, this realization tends to focus one’s attention.

The piece is, as I say, not Beethoven’s Tenth, nor is it Chopin’s early E-flat minor prelude, a project brought to successful conclusion in recent years by Prof. Jeffrey Kallberg at the University of Pennsylvania. I was involved with that in a different—more tangential—way, but I gained a healthy respect (OK, awe) for what the task requires: more than anything else, a willingness to step out into the scholarly wild blue in a way that simply giving an informed opinion does not approach. The work is, though, touched by the hand of a master, and the pressure to provide credible parts for those missing is very real. As musicologists, we tend to deal with ideas, history, and analysis and criticism of music; we weigh evidence, receive bolts from the blue and/or patiently construct theories, and we strive to write persuasive, elegant prose. For us to actually produce some music, even (or especially) in the service of completing an incomplete work by someone else, raises familiar questions in a less than comfortable way. How “authentic” will this be? If the work was hastily composed for a particular deadline, how significant is “compositional intent”? If the work was produced in a less-than-familiar place, how well were the capabilities of the collaborating instrumentalists—and their actual instruments—understood? These are ever-present questions for those of us interested in performance practices, but the circumstances of an occasional work (they tend to be rushed, more casually assembled, and so on) skew the equation. The ideal point is probably somewhere between not obsessing and avoiding carelessness in the decision-making process, but it’s still hard to find.

Like so many other things in music, though, there is no choice. Would it be better for the work never to be heard? Unthinkable. Perhaps it would be better to leave the challenge to someone else, and to remain on more familiar turf? Likewise unthinkable. Performers live on terra incognita, and it is a good exercise for us to visit there periodically, to walk on the wild side. Our scholarship improves thereby. The hardship, of course, is that one’s relative puniness is put before one’s eyes several times an hour. Ouch!

Ultimately, that’s good practice too, and likewise good for scholarship.

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 Musicology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reconstructive Surgery

  1. eba says:

    ‘Reconstructive surgery’ gives a whole new meaning to Doctor, Jonathan.
    This sounds like an amazing project. As someone totally outside the musicology world, who even knew this skill even existed? Not me, for one. That’s one reason I read this blog.
    (Like another example, this morning on NPR, the interview with the composers who for years have written the original orchestral music for NFL Films highlight reels. Who knew? What an esoteric — but important, and one assumes food-putting-on-the-table — job.)
    I hope, Jonathan, you continue to post about this project, maybe half-way through he writing, and towards the end, and then maybe the first play through with performers, and, of course, at a debut. I look foward to reading your thoughts on the process.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the thought. I’ll probably post more, depending on how crazy it makes me. But we are looking very specifically toward seeing that the work is again heard.

Comments are closed.