An afterthought on final thoughts of Edward Elgar

May 20, 1998|By Dennis Bartel

PRESENTLY in the classical music work there is much hand-wringing over a controversial ethical question that also has consequences in realms beyond music. It involves the Third Symphony of Great Britain's beloved composer Sir Edward Elgar.

As music lovers know, Elgar wrote two symphonies, both masterpieces. After the death of his wife, Alice, in 1920, he withdrew into a prolonged depression and wrote no more music until the 1930s, when his friend George Bernard Shaw persuaded him to write his way out of depression with a new symphony. To further induce Elgar, Shaw cajoled the British Broadcasting Corp. to commission a symphony from the great composer. Elgar, in his mid-70s, mustered his strength and began making preliminary sketches. He got far on two movements, while two others remained in embryonic stages as he entered his final illness.

Weak and knowing that he had a few months to live, Elgar told a friend that his symphony remained "all bits and pieces no one would understand. No one must tinker with it. I think you had better burn it."

The sketches, about 130 manuscript pages, were not burned. Elgar's daughter turned them over to the BBC with the agreement that the manuscript not be published and that "no one should have access to it for the purpose of finishing or completing or making any alteration." The BBC deposited the sketches in the British Library.

In the early 1990s, composer Anthony Payne began to complete the work, using the sketches and his scholarly knowledge of Elgar's previous work. When Elgar's descendants, who controlled the copyright to the sketches, got wind of Payne's efforts, they tried to intervene. Then, realizing this was futile -- the sketches were to enter the public domain in seven years anyway -- they grudgingly gave their blessing to the project. The symphony was finished, or "elaborated," and recently performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Now the Third Symphony of Elgar has been issued on CD. Like his previous two symphonies, it is a towering work.

The controversy swirling through the music world centers on such points as the dying composer's final wishes and whether the unfinished work left behind by an artist is fair game for the living to 'tinker with.' "

"Ethically, it is untenable," says Baltimore attorney Marianna I. Burt. "The originator is the total owner of the work and made zTC disposition as to what should happen to the work. It would be different if he had said nothing. Nevermind that we might enjoy it; that it might be an uplifting experience. Ethically it is wrong because his specific wishes were expressed."

Digital images

A parallel could be drawn with the emerging practice in television of digitally placing the images of dead movie stars in commercials. Most of these stars rarely, or never, appeared in commercials during their careers. They made deliberate decisions not to, as they carefully crafted their images. We can surmise that many of them would have objected strongly to now having their images used to plug products. Is this somehow a violation of the dead?

Or consider this scenario. A man in his late years takes up art collecting and accumulates a small cache of original paintings. He is diagnosed with cancer (as was Elgar) and instructs his heirs to keep the collection in the family after his death. Like Elgar and his sketches, nothing is in his will about the collection. After his death the family falls on hard times and decides to sell the collection to a museum. Not only is the family saved from financial ruin, but also the paintings are made available to the public. Are there times when the higher purpose is to ignore a dying person's final wishes?

A higher purpose

Anthony Payne and others, such as Elgar scholar Colin Matthews, believe the higher purpose was served by completing and issuing Elgar's symphony. There are precedents: Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's "Turandot," Mahler's Tenth Symphony. "Should the Third Symphony not be heard because Elgar in his darkest moment asked for it to be destroyed?" asks Mr. Matthews.

An important work

Elgar worked hard and seriously on his Third Symphony with the intent of delivering it to the public. He was well on his way to doing so. Is this helping hand so wrong? What damage to his reputation will occur if we hear his final thoughts, however incomplete? When I heard this utterly Elgarian Symphony, with its plaintively surging first movement theme, its tragic adagio and its life-affirming finale, I was moved to tears. I am certain I am not alone.

"Should the view prevail," says Mr. Matthews, "that it is better [better for whom?] that any attempt at realizing the symphony ought not to be performed? The thought of unfinished music reserved for the private pleasure of musicologists seems deeply distasteful."

The Third Symphony of Elgar has taken its place on my shelf. It sounds to me like Sir Edward speaking from the grave, not reluctantly, but vigorously and sweetly, and I am grateful to Mr. Payne for confronting the ethical barbed wire that surrounded those 130 manuscript pages. I, for one, am richer for it.

Dennis Bartel, a columnist for Chamber Music magazine, writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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