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Completing Bach Work



Doing work for a genius

Juozas Rimas
wrote (January 5, 2004):
What do you think about completion of unfinished works by the great composers?

I've just read in a Mozart's newsgroup that "in Jan. 2005, the first performance of Bob Levin's completion of Mozart's c minor mass will take place at Carnegie Hall". If someone wrote a work extremely similar to the mass, he'd be deemed an epigone and plagiarist. No one would care. Now the music which will be added to the existing fragment will not only be similar to Mozart's style but it will try to imitate Mozart as closely as possible because the apparent point is to make a continuation, smooth to the point a person who hasn't heard the piece before wouldn't even notice the transition point from Mozart to Levin.

Similarly, I don't want to have any recordings of the Art of Fugue with the finished last fugue. If the composers of today have an unconquerable desire of jazzing on the Bach's/Mozart's themes, they could write separate works but why repair the great creations...

Uri Golomb wrote (January 5, 2004):
The last fugue in Bach's Art of Fugue has been comleted at least once – by Donald Tovey; the Delme Quartet's recording on Hyperion (which I haven't heard myself) contains both the completed and the uncompleted version (cf. which also includes link to the recoridng's liner notes). I think the Delme Quartet were not the only ones to record the Tovey version, but I'm not sure. I've heard them do it in a concert once; it sounded convincing, but I wouldn't want to give a firm opinion -- either positive or negative -- based on just one listening.

Robert Levin would not be the first to complete K. 427, either. An early 20th-century editor -- name slips my mind at the moment -- tried to complete it by using movements from Mozart's own earlier church music. To the best of my knowledge, that version has not been recorded.

However, some compositional work has to go into the Mass (BWV 232) even to perform the standard version. The Kyrie and Gloria are complete; however, inner parts are missing from the Credo, Incarnatus, Sanctus and Benedictus. AFAIK, the harmonies are complete -- Mozart notated a continuo part -- so editors reconstruct the missing parts (mostly strings, I think) based on those. The wind parts in the Incarnatus are complete. If no reconstruction were allowed, we'd be left doing just the Kyrie and Gloria (or performing the other movements with an organist filling in the harmonic blanks). It's the same with the Requiem, except that most people use the completion by Mozart's pupil Sussmayer (most -- but not all; Robert Levin and H.C. Robbins Landon are among those who offered alternative cmpletions). I should add that all these details are from memory -- I might have made a few errors of fact in this paragraph.

However, since this is a Bach list. we shoudl perhaps be talking about the Markus-Passion (BWV 247).... That has been reconstructed several times. I only know Koompan's version, which consists of movements taken mostly from cantatas, plus Koopman's own setting of the recitatives. The choice of Bach movements for completion is mostly (though not always) convincg; Koopman's own recitatives, however, sound convincingly 18th-century -- but not convincingly Bachian. In the end, however, one is left with the question -- what's the point? The Bach movements can be heard in their original context, after all... I suppose, however, that some people were introduced to some of these movements through the Passion. I actually wrote a positive review of that set, which I would still endorse: the performances are very convincing, and some of the music works very well indeed in the new context. Ultimately, however, the juxtaposition of Bach's finest music with Koopman's recitatives jars a bit.

Here's Koompan himself on the general subject of "doing work for a genius" (in an interview published in Goldberg (september 2004; the complete interview is on, He previously introduced his _Markus-Passion_ as an attempt to be like one of Bach's students; he expanded a bit on this in the interview:

"When I went to conservatory in Holland, I wanted to study composition as well, but I always composed in 17th or 18th century style. The teacher at the conservatory felt that I should change, that I should write in a modern style. I said to him, "but I'm not interested in doing that", and he replied, "then I'm not interested in teaching you". So occasions like the ones I just described [i.e. completing fragments etc.] - and others like composing cadenzas for soloists - are welcome opportunities for me to write my own compositions (or just additions) in a style I like, without feeling guilty about it. A good example is my reconstruction of the Markus Passion, where I composed the missing recitatives; and at the moment I am working on a similar project, reconstructing Cantata BWV 205a - my first version is ready. We're going to perform that in Dresden, it's not for a recording. There are major problems, nothing is 100% clear. Musicologists have made suggestions on how things should go; but BWV 205a is lost, and I think it is impossible to reconstruct it as Bach performed it. Some of the arias and the choruses have survived, but you have to find other solutions for the missing arias. I like to tackle these problems with a fresh view, trying to find my own solutions, and so I did. I mean, it's a puzzle to find out how at some point the text will fit. How practical was Bach with his parodies? We still know too little about this.

"In BWV 205a I had to compose the recitatives - this goes quicker and quicker now, as I've done quite a bit of this by now. All such projects add to the joy of working on the Bach cantatas, and give me the opportunity to feel, in several ways, like a student of Bach's."

Charles Francis wrote (January 5, 2004):
Uri Golomb wrote: < Here's Koompan himself on the general subject of "doing work for a genius" (in an interview published in Goldberg (september 2004; the complete interview s on: >
Thanks for the link to an interesting interview. The following caught my attention:

"In the 1960s and 1970s, when I studied with Leonhardt, all students were interested in reading treatises, examining the original sources; they were eager to know everything. But these days, I notice that many of the good performers are less and less interested in sources. Great musicians like Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen, and performers like myself and others have made many important discoveries; younger players seem content with relying on those discoveries. They go off and make music, relying on what the earlier generations have taught them. I think that's dangerous because, if we are wrong, the next generation should find out our mistakes, and correct us."

While noting that "Great" can be applied to the pop idol of ones choice, Koopman's point is nonetheless valid. The attitude of "younger players" he alludes to may well underlie certain acrimonious musicological/theological discussions on this group (re: the negative reaction of some to a critical re-evaluation of the sources).

Uri Golomb wrote (January 5, 2004):
Charles Francis wrote: < While noting that "Great" can be applied to the pop idol of ones choice, Koopman's point is nonetheless valid. The attitude of "younger players" he alludes to may well underlie certain acrimonious musicological/theological discussions on this group (re: the negative reaction of some to a critical re-evaluation of the sources). >
Koopman certainly did not mean that any and all criticism should be accepted, only thit should be noted; and he was calling on performers to study 18th-century sources directly, not to pontificate on the basis of secondary literature. We all know which debates Charles is referring to, and while I mostly avoid that topic, I'll just say that offering counter-arguments to criticism, and pointing out why "conventional wisdom" is, in a particular case, well-supported by evidence, does not amount to a an over-aximoatic approach, [I assume that's what Charles meant by "theological": taking the conclusion you want to reach as a starting-point, on faith, as necessarily correct, and structuring the arguments around the conclusion, rather than having the arguments lead towards the conclusion, without undue prejudice]; and that Brad Lehman's most acrimonious responses were to what he perceived (and demonstrated) to be such an over-aximoatic approach on the other side. Of course received wisdom needs to be constantly re-examined; but sometimes, re-examination leaves it stronger, not weaker.

For me, the irony in Koopman's statements is that he's one of the few musicians who has taken the trouble to respond to Rifkin's findings on Bach's vocal forces -- yet did so in a manner which is, in my view, not entirely satisfactory. Rifkin did, in my view, prove that conventional wisdom was wrong on this particular issue -- and he did so in the right way (i.e., by a direct, rigorous, careful examination of the original sources, not by relying on an analysis of seocndary literature -- which, admittedly, is what I'm doing now. An analysis of secondary literature is enough to show whether it is logically sound or not -- you don't need the original sources to determine that a writer committed an error of logic or contradicted him/herself. If you want to challenge the facts, however, you need to examine the original sources. Suppose you conclude a given writer's conclusions are not supported by the facts as listed in his/her article. If you then check the facts directly, you might find that they actually offer more evidence, not less, to support the conclusions you sought to challenge). It is salutary that Koopman has actually taken the trouble to think about these issues (unlike the many performers who simply ignore Rifkin's findings), but his actual response fails to adrress some pretty central points in Rifkin's arguments.

Glynn Naughton wrote (January 5, 2004):
Juozas Rimas wrote: < What do you think about completion of unfinished works by the great composers?
I've just read in a Mozart's newsgroup that "in Jan. 2005, the first performance of Bob Levin's completion of Mozart's c minor mass will take place at Carnegie Hall". If someone wrote a work extremely similar to the mass, he'd be deemed an epigone and plagiarist. No one would care. >
I don't think that the results of "doing work for a genius" (by which I mean completing unfinished works or composing new works in the same style) are necessarily interesting. As you say: who cares? But the act of doing it is certainly worthwhile. In fact, it's the best way I know of learning about how a particular style works.

I reckon I've learned more about Bach's fugal writing from trying to copy it myself than from listening or reading of analyses. The resulting fugues range from garbage to mediocre, with maybe even the odd good 'un, but that's not the point. You really get inside the mechanics of the thing. "Hey, I'll be able to pivot to the relative major on those notes later on" or "hmm...I'll be able to go around a cycle of fifths using that motif", or whatever. And then you go back to Bach and see places where he might well have been thinking along simliar lines. It's very revealing.

It's also a great way to have it jammed in your face just how good Bach was. Even the simplest-looking passages are far from trivial when you try to do it yourself. And if you hit a block and look to Bach for a place where he solved a similar problem, you might well find that his solution is something that you would never have thought of yourself. But hey, that's why he was Bach and we're not.

Everyone should have a go at pastiche writing. It's fun! And you learn a lot! If the results are embarrassing, nobody ever needs to know. Whereas if they work out, you can give a musical friend a little prelude or a fugue or something as a birthday or Christmas present. I've found that that is often much appreciated. And it's cheaper than buying them a CD.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 5, 2004):
[To Glynn Naughton] I agree, Glynn!

I'd take it even further as a recommendation: without walking directly in those shoes of composition and improvisation, getting to know the way it is necessary to think creatively, I believe that there's no way anyone can have even 10% of a clue about any composer's "intentions" (and certainly not enough of a clue to cite them in criticizing someone else's work, as at least one prominent member here does regularly). How else would it be possible to recognize what written-out notation could mean, except through the experience of doing it? Understanding what is written down, and what is not written down, and why it looks as it does?

And Bach himself said that there's no substitute for going through the work, applying oneself with as much dedication as he had to do himself.

Here's a simple compositional exercise that I proposed recently on the BachCantatas list, an elementary assignment of the type Bach gave to pupils. Given is a chorale melody: write out a four-part harmonization of it, with smoothly singable parts in all four voices and a satisfying harmonic motion.

A F G C A F G, F E D F G A G F.
A F G C A F G, F E D F G A G F.
C C D E F G E C, F F G A Bb A G F.

Simply write a solution out by hand on a page of manuscript paper. The whole thing probably shouldn't take more than an hour (if even that much...a competent player can simply improvise one and then write it down). These are the skills expected of any second-year college student in music, not even requiring any specialization in 17th or 18th century repertoire; so, this exercise should be no trouble at all if one has any experience knowing from the inside out what any "composer's intentions" are.

And then, part 2 of the exercise: using that same chorale melody as a bass line, compose a simple piece. This, again, is a basic skill that any player of basso continuo needs to have (both in composition and improvisation).

In my opinion, no one has a valid criticism of anyone else's performance practice, unless he/she can first demonstrate the ability to do these fundamental things that were expected of the original performers.

The most that such an uninitiated person (an "outsider" of the craft of music) can offer is a set of personal preferences as a listener, which must not be foisted as any sort of truth beyond that...along with selective quotations from reference materials to give those preferences a faux air of credibility, to "fool most of the people most of the time" as Barnum said it.

The exercise was put up directly as a challenge for a person who is also a member of this BachRecordings list, one who regularly pontificates the "composer's intentions" to put down other people's professional work. But, as yet, he has produced nothing in response to it: not even to identify the chorale itself (even though Bach used it in at least six extant pieces), or to offer a cobbled-together explanation of "Bar Form," or whatnot. Obviously, without recourse to the BWV numbers or the chorale's title or any keywords for a dictionary, which would allow a bit of cheating on the exercise, "knowledge" that is cribbed only from books is of no use to him; there are no shortcuts in lieu of real knowledge. Information is not knowledge.

And that member hasn't shown any inclination to learn the material in any way other than second-hand quotation from books he has purchased (which makes him appear "knowledgeable" although it's merely resourcefulness with information, and exclusive reliance on authority. invalid method of proof), and occasionally from internet
searches. No visits to a research library, no admitted study with any real scholar musician, no admitted credentials of any kind, other than the obvious ability to purchase some fine materials. One can't simply cite books--and especially one's own highly selective use of books--as if it proves anything, or as if the repetition itself proves anything. (We saw that again this weekend, right here: citing several supposedly authoritative sources about something, to justify his own supposed understanding of a composer's intentions, and then simply repeating himself when his better-informed and more logically-coherent interlocutor was unconvinced. That interlocutor wasn't even me, this time!)

Nor has that member shown any inclination to respect logic, or to have logical scrutiny applied to his own pronouncements to see if they make any reasonable sense. When his own logic was challenged recently, on the BachCantatas list, he replied in a manner that revealed his motivations. He cited a passage attributed to the prince of evil, Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust," where logic itself is dismissed as merely a troublesome and roundabout and pointy-booted instrument of torture, to extract pain from people. According to Mephistopheles, logic does no good in solving any real questions, other than to cause suffering. (Here's a question I have: why is this member citing as an authority the master deceiver of the whole human race, in an effort to excuse himself from logical standards, and to justify his own opinions? That seems a rather important question, especially since he is so regularly concerned with everyone else's credibility, and with telling us whom to believe and whom not to believe!)

Anyway, I see it very simply: that member's assertions of a composer's "intentions" about anything mean zero, until he can at least complete this compositional exercise satisfactorily, showing evidence of a composerly way of thinking. And if he can do it, completing the exercise which I've repeated here as that challenge, his own appreciation for Bach (as you pointed out below, Glynn) and for the serious work of qualified performers will grow immeasurably. There simply is no way to understand a craft well enough to criticize it meaningfully (beyond personal preference), without knowing how to do it.


Anyway, getting back on topic....

As for Bob Levin, I think he's terrific. I spoke with him once, backstage, after hearing one of his Mozart concerto performances where he improvises the cadenzas; and his published work speaks well for itself in quality. He's a brilliant player and scholar, very focused, and his written reconstructions of Mozart come out as well as they do because he can think so confidently like a composer and improviser... walking in Mozart's shoes as much as can be done. Playing, writing, and interpretation of written material are part of the same craft, or at least they used to be so in the milieus of Bach and Mozart; and that's crucial in performance, reconstruction, and any criticism that might be offered for/against the results.

I agree, the results of a reconstruction (or anyone's performance of anything, really) are not necessarily interesting, but there definitely is a better chance of it when the people involved are practitioners of the same craft that went into the original creation of the work.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (January 5, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] wow-Koopman wanted to do that? That's exactly what I'm doing now (or at least studying to do-the first class of second-term composition is in 3 1/2 hrs-all counterpoint!). Fortunately the composition profs here are much more open to my approach then Koopman's were.

Sorry to go off the topic here...

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (January 5, 2004):
[To Jupozas Rimas] I favor them if and only if there are some indications left behind on how to finish them, and then only in the style of the master. One good example of this that I admire and highly recommend is Wolfgang Stockmeier's completion of both the B-Dur and d-Moll Konzertbearbeitungen after Konzerte by Torelli by Johann Gottfried Walther. An example of a completion that I like but do not necessarily favor is the Suessmeyer completion of the Requiem d-Moll K 626 by Mozart. I think it would be interesting to hear and see some people's completions of Kontrapunct XIX from Die Kunst der Fuge. I think it would be interesting to see how close to Bach's style and art they come.

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Last update: ýJanuary 8, 2004 ý18:04:33