Unfinished business

`Don't let anyone tinker with it ...' said Edward Elgar as he died, referring to his unfinished Third Symphony. But now the composer Anthony Payne intends to tinker until it's complete. Has he the right? And if so, has he the talent? By Mark Pappenheim
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The Independent Online
The news that Anthony Payne, the composer and Independent music critic, is to complete Sir Edward Elgar's unfinished Third Symphony has caused predictable consternation in certain quarters of the musical world. Both the surviving members of the Elgar family and the BBC, which originally commissioned the work in 1933 (the year before the composer's death) and still owns the extant material, have been accused of defying the composer's dying wishes. And indeed the evidence seems incontrovertible: lying on his deathbed in a Worcester nursing home, the ailing Elgar implored his friend, the violinist WH "Billy" Reed, "to do something for me..." before stuttering out the following broken phrases: "The symphony all bits and pieces... No one would understand... no one... no one... Don't let anyone tinker with it... I think you had better burn it."

As Payne says, "If that is what Elgar really intended, he should have burnt it himself." And, as things stand, if anyone should be accused of flouting Elgar's dying wishes, it is dear old "Billy" Reed himself. In his 1936 memoir, Elgar As I Knew Him, Reed recalls the whole conversation and how, on hearing the composer's apparently conclusive final suggestion, he and Elgar's daughter Clarice "exchanged glances... I saw that she looked, as I am sure I did, a little startled... Then I felt it was only a suggestion and not really a request; so I leaned over him and said: `I don't think it is necessary to burn it; it would be awful to do that. But Clarice and I will remember that no one is to try to put it together. No one shall ever tinker with it: we promise you that.' Hearing this, he seemed to grow more peaceful."

How peaceful he would have been if he'd known that, within three years of his death, Reed was to publish (as an appendix to his Elgar memoir) full facsimiles of over one third of the composer's surviving sketches (some 140 pages all told), we can only imagine.

Whether it would have been more or less peaceful than the current state of Virgil's shade, contemplating the posthumous literary standing of the unfinished "sketches" which he too, on his deathbed, asked to be consigned to the flames, perhaps only Dante could answer. For, as will be the case with Payne's forthcoming completion of Elgar's Third, Virgil's Aeneid owes its existence (broken lines and all) only to a cavalier disregard of its creator's dying wishes. And world literature, music and art are all the richer for it.

But then, works of art are like children: at a certain point, they break free of parental control and take on a life of their own. And, just like children, as last week's clerical revival of the abortion debate serves to remind us, it's hard to agree exactly when the moment of the big break occurs. At conception? At birth? At school-leaving age? Never? With a work of art, it might seem self-evident that a sole creator retains absolute rights over the fate of his or her creation. But art, imitating life, is never so simple. Write a play and what say can you, or should you, expect over its staging? Publish a book and who's to say how it should be read? Compose a symphony and you positively demand the active participation of an orchestra and conductor in its performance: how then can you refuse them freedom of interpretation? The work, once delivered, takes on a life of its own.

And a work that has not yet gone full term? Maybe Elgar's executors should enlist the support of Diane Blood: for, if the composer left behind the seeds of his Third Symphony, Payne may well have the test-tube to sprout them in. "Leaving a great work of art unfinished is slightly sentimental," he has observed, and he certainly has the right qualifications to "tinker" with Elgar's: a composer with a proven track record on the very grandest, most public scale (he has twice been commissioned to write Proms pieces for the Royal Albert Hall), Payne is a lifelong lover of the English romantic and pastoral schools, and, thanks to the modern availability of music through published scores, live performances, broadcasts and recordings, can certainly bring to his job of posthumous amanuensis a more intimate and detailed acquaintance with Elgar's music than the composer could ever have imagined in his own day.

The musical repertoire is in fact full of pieces completed by hands other than those of their credited composers and now happily accepted by the public at large: Mozart's Requiem (largely composed by his least talented pupil, Sussmayr), Borodin's Prince Igor (its overture annotated from memory by his friend Glazunov; the rest patched together by Rimsky-Korsakov), Alban Berg's Lulu (its third act worked up from sketches by Cerha), Puccini's Turandot (its final love duet concocted by Alfano), Mahler's 10th (of which the composer completed only one movement). In almost all of these cases, initial attempts at completion - at rendering the works themselves performable before a larger public, rather than restricting them exclusively to private scholarly delectation - were greeted with hostility: Toscanini refused to conduct Alfano's finale to Turandot at the opera's 1926 La Scala premiere; Berg's widow banned all access to her dead husband's sketches, and Cerha's completion of Lulu, in fact executed during the widow's lifetime, could only be published after her death; Mahler's widow Alma adamantly opposed Deryck Cooke and Berthold Goldschmidt's "performing edition" of Gustav's 10th - until she heard it.

And that, at the least, is what Payne is promising: the chance for all of us at long last to hear a work which, in sketch form, only musicologists and composers can re-create for themselves in their mind's ear. Perhaps Payne cannot supply the dash of inspiration which Elgar himself might have added in the actual working-out of his initial ideas, nor would it be right for him to supply his own - not as long as he intends to call his offering Elgar's Third, rather than simply a Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Edward Elgar or some such periphrasis. But if the result contains at least some hint of how the great Edwardian nostalgist had faced up to the intervening 20 years since his last symphonic score - some sense of Elgar's response to the coming of Stravinskian Neo-Classicism - it will have been worth all that waiting and all those broken promisesn

Anthony Payne explains himself

"In view of Elgar's unequivocal death-bed plea, it is worth outlining the arguments for going ahead with the project. I feel that his equilibrium had been upset at the wrong moment, by despair at facing death and by depression at being out of fashion. No embargo, for instance, was placed on his unfinished opera, which, ironically, seems less workable. He could not have known that within 50 years his star would again be in the ascendant. As it was, he no doubt felt that an ineffective attempt at completing his symphony would further damage his reputation. We also know that Eric Fenby, by then renowned for his work on the ailing Delius's final works, offered Elgar a similar service and was refused. Fenby himself has suggested that Elgar might have been thinking of him when he placed the sketches out of bounds. Ultimately, however, I feel that an artist of Elgar's stature belongs to us all, and that music as impressive as the Third Symphony should be made public. As for the music itself, it is possible with very little pastiche composition to reconstruct considerable portions of what was to be a powerfully compact four-movement work. The new classicism seems to have left its mark on even this old arch-romantic. There is a first movement exposition repeat, for instance, and Elgar left this whole section complete in short score, which enables us to make an educated guess at the symphony's overall proportions. Much of the recapitulation is also complete, including, in full score, a grandly mysterious link to effect the new key change required for the second subject. Next, there was to be a scherzo cum intermezzo, very different from its counterparts in Symphonies 1 and 2. This needs only a few discreet guesses for a convincing completion, and its unique flavour can be sampled by listening to the banquet scene from King Arthur which supplied the main theme, and in all probability its working out. The heart of the work was to have been an adagio of noble pathos and muted agony, probably a bipartite movement as in Symphony 2, and it is possible to make a fair stab at completing the first half of it. Finally, there is a virtually complete sonata exposition for a vigorous, heroic finale, drawing, again, on King Arthur music in the splendid second subject group. Completely missing are the first movement development and coda, and the later portions of the adagio and finale, crucial gaps that will always prevent a convincing completion of Elgar's Third on the lines of Mahler's 10th. Nevertheless the sketches contain some of the most poignant and challenging music Elgar wrote."