What Once Was Lost: Unfinding and Refinding Music History

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On Music

Félix Vallotton, Lady at the Piano, 1904. Courtesy the Hermitage Museum.

Most of us have, at one time or another, put something valuable in a supposedly safe place and then forgotten where we left it. Car keys, wallets, eyeglasses, cell phones—whether through distraction or neglect or diabolical misfortune, things disappear. And it’s not just household items. Over the centuries, more than a few of our most precious cultural artifacts have been lost in similar ways. This includes historically significant music manuscripts, a spate of which have turned up in recent years, to the delight of musicologists and listeners alike. Which is to say that sometimes, through an unpredictable combination of knowledge, awareness, sleuthing, and occasional pure luck, lost treasures are, like paradise, regained.

Not long ago, when George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, was rummaging in a piano bench in Friar Park, the couple’s expansive and whimsical Gothic estate in Oxfordshire, she found a long-forgotten folder the late Beatle had left there. In it were twenty years of original documents, including the lyrics of a previously unknown song from the early seventies, “Hey Ringo.” Written as an imaginary dialogue between himself and Ringo, it is something of a lament about the Beatles’ breakup. Although George was as ready to move on as the others, this song sheds light on the close musical relationship between two of the most influential players in rock history.

Olivia Harrison, whom I believe would consider herself a curator of her husband’s legacy, was revising and updating George’s 1980 memoir/scrapbook, I Me Mine, when she decided to search through previously ignored nooks and crannies for fresh material to include in the book. This February, Ms. Harrison presented a copy of the lyrics to a stunned Ringo at a Los Angeles party commemorating George’s seventy-fourth birthday, expressing hope that he and Paul McCartney would record it. She is said to be searching now for a possible demo tape made by George more than four decades ago that would give his surviving bandmates a key to how lyrics like “Hey Ringo, now I want you to know, that without you my guitar plays far too slow” were meant to be set to music.

One might think such a discovery is a rare occurrence. But other, even older, manuscripts thought to be lost forever have been surfacing—often in dusty lockers, attics, archives—with curious regularity. If Beatles material can arise from the abyss, why not Beethoven?

In fact, a Beethoven manuscript turned up a little over a decade ago in, of all places, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. A piano duet transcription of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” the original finale of the composer’s renowned and revolutionary Opus 130 String Quartet, had been acquired by an unknown buyer at an auction house in Berlin in 1890. It then made its circuitous way to the Palmer Theological Seminary, where it was put on a shelf and forgotten for over a hundred years. That is, until an intrepid librarian named Heather Carbo, going about the mundane business of cleaning the seminary’s archive cabinets one summer day, recognized the eighty-page document—scribed vigorously in sepia ink in the composer’s own hand—and lifted it out of obscurity.

The heavily revised and annotated score was written toward the very end of Beethoven’s life, when he was altogether deaf. It fetched $1.9 million at Sotheby’s in London, in December 2005, a handsome sum by any calculus, but its real value lies in insights it offers musicologists into his working habits and thoughts before his death in 1827.

Another astounding discovery occurred when the German musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann read patiently through the digital catalogue of the Czech Museum of Music in Prague, entry by entry. He was floored when he realized that the museum’s holdings included a musical collaboration by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his supposed rival, Antonio Salieri. The work, a cantata titled Per la ricuperata salute di Offelia (“For the recovering health of Ophelia”) was scripted in three parts by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It was acquired by the museum in the years after World War II, part of a larger cache of music scores, then proceeded to go missing during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Da Ponte had collaborated with Mozart on The Marriage of Figaro in 1786. For this piece, he had Salieri composing music for the first section, Mozart for the middle, and a lesser-known composer named Cornetti for the final movement. The surfacing of Offelia debunks the legend that Salieri—played with sinister finesse by F. Murray Abraham in the film version of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—poisoned Mozart out of jealousy. In fact, it is now clear that they must have worked together in the mid-1780s. The piece was performed last February, in Prague, for the first time in centuries—perhaps ever.

When interviewed about “Hey Ringo” and other works by her husband that had gone astray, Olivia Harrison admitted to having had “a reluctance to disturb these little time capsules,” saying, “You don’t want to decant someone’s life.” Yet the mundane work of many archivists, librarians, and researchers—documentation, cataloguing—is often motivated by just that desire: to disturb the time capsules and reveal what is hidden in them, to bring them to light for fresh study. In short, to decant lives and the artistic work produced during them. And if finding a misplaced wristwatch or favorite ring is cause for excitement, imagine the joy of an archivist who unearths an artifact that changes cultural history.

Not long before Olivia Harrison made her discovery, an early Stravinsky orchestral work was discovered amid a stack of dusty old scores in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Assumed by musicologists to be lost forever, possibly destroyed during the Russian Revolution or the civil unrest in its wake, Stravinsky’s Pogrebal’naya Pesnya (“Funeral Song”), though night and day different from “Hey Ringo,” was also a lament. The twelve-minute piece, composed in honor of his famous teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was performed just once at a concert at the conservatory in January 1909, and never heard again in the twentieth century. Stravinsky was twenty-six when he performed it—about the same age Harrison was when the Beatles disbanded and George wrote the lyrics of his unrecorded song. Natalia Braginskaya, a Russian musicologist and leading expert on Igor Stravinsky, had been searching for it for over a decade.

Because of political biases against Stravinsky during the Soviet era up until the “thaw” of the sixties, the chances were slim that this piece would resurface. Stravinsky was persona non grata to Soviet authorities, who saw little reason to preserve his work. Nonetheless, Braginskaya oversaw extensive searches of the conservatory—the same conservatory, in then-Leningrad, where, back in 1944, key instrumental portions of Rachmaninoff’s lost and all-but-forgotten First Symphony in D minor were discovered. She repeatedly came up short—the archives were in chaos.

Then, an astute librarian colleague, Irina Sidorenko, happened upon the manuscript when the building was being cleared for renovation. Had it not been for her and Braginskaya, at whose request Sidorenko had been carefully searching the library’s neglected holdings, the rediscovered treasure “might have been binned, or at best neatly restacked in some distant vault for the next hundred years,” according to Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh. On February 26, 2015, Braginskaya received a phone call from Sidorenko, telling her that she’d found and was holding the “Funeral Song” manuscript in her hands. “I was close to collapse, weak in the knees,” and for a few seconds couldn’t speak, Baginskaya recalled. “I was shocked profoundly, it was a deepest amazement—obviously the most important point in my professional life.”

Braginskaya worked with the young composer Yuri Akbalkan to painstakingly reconstruct the complete score on the basis of the handwritten fifty-eight orchestral parts Sidorenko had found—strong intimations of Firebird can be heard, but also the influence of Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov himself. The piece is now a pivotal component in the study and understanding of early Stravinsky. It was performed in Saint Petersburg for the second time ever this past December, conducted by Valery Gergiev, and is currently on something of a world tour, being premiered by major orchestras from New York to Paris, London to Berlin, and beyond.

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While the act of documentation, whether in a biography or institutional catalogue or digital archive, is behind many such finds, sorting or cataloguing or digitizing isn’t enough. Anyone could pack documents for storage during renovation, but only an Irina Sidorenko, guided by a Natalia Braginskaya—caretakers who really care—could have recognized the manuscript for what it was.

The British conductor, musicologist, and world-renowned Beethoven editor Jonathan Del Mar has made some pretty stunning discoveries simply by knowing what he’s looking at. A first-edition set of parts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was, he tells me, “correctly catalogued” by the British Library but the cataloguer did not realize, until Del Mar pointed it out, that the printed score was annotated in Beethoven’s own hand. In another instance, in an appropriately catalogued Beethoven sketchbook in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Del Mar “found on one page four bars of the full score of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, which are the four bars missing in the autograph manuscript (bars 255–258).” He goes on to state, “One can imagine a copyist’s score catalogued as such, without anyone knowing that tipped into it is an unknown leaf of something else—and that leaf could be autograph. More likely, the poor librarians catalogue a manuscript as ‘sixteenth century British, composer unknown,’ then an expert comes along who is able to identify it as the handwriting of, say, Thomas Tallis. Then manuscripts are sometimes misfiled; it got itself in between two other items, and is only unearthed when someone happens to find three items on the shelf where only two should be. There are, as we say, many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip!’ ”

Del Mar suggests there may be quite a lot more material to be found out there, like so many unicorns being flushed from the forest. Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion are widely recognized as high-water marks in his canon and, indeed, in Western music, but the composer’s famously lost St. Mark Passion has been searched for in vain over centuries. One of the many reasons it’s still reasonably worth looking for is the probable quality of the physical manuscript itself. Unless it was burned in a fire or destroyed by a flood, the nature of the paper on which it would have been written gives one hope that it could still be legible and intact.

“Though late 19th-century paper is notoriously fragile and brittle,” Del Mar notes, “18th- and early 19th-century paper is robust, and a huge number of autograph manuscripts by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert survive to this day. I’m always surprised at the high proportion of important works for which the original manuscript survives … In 1800 Austria or Prague people were generally educated musically, and there were easily enough people who would cherish, appreciate, treasure and protect a Mozart manuscript for the future.”

The British Library, like numerous other repositories, is currently in the process of digitizing its holdings, which include the manuscripts of medieval songs dating back to before the thirteenth century alongside highlights such as the original score of Handel’s “Messiah” and John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The process will take time, money, and trained personnel to accomplish. There are already many online catalogues and finding aids that grant unprecedented access to collections around the world. The past has never been so readily present—an unmined lode of ore awaiting the next digital prospector. But without the attention and curation of archivists, librarians, scholars, collectors—and, yes, the interested lay public—the veins of virtual gold can be easily overlooked.

Of course, more than music is resurfacing in expected and unexpected places. In 2015, manuscript fragments of the Quran, written on parchment in Hijazi, an ancient form of Arabic, were discovered in the archives of the University of Birmingham. Misbound with another Quran manuscript, they were radiocarbon-dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., making them among the oldest known examples of this text and situating them historically in the age of the Prophet Muhammad himself. A painting attributed to Jackson Pollock was discovered in the past year, not in a temperature-controlled vault in Manhattan but in the back of a dusty Arizona garage. In July, it was announced that the complete typescript and illustrations of a lost picture book by Maurice Sendak and his collaborator, Arthur Yorinks, Presto and Zesto in Limboland, will be published next year after disappearing for two decades into the hinterlands of Sendak’s archives in Connecticut. This August saw the closing of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City centered on the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus, the “Arcades Project,” the manuscript of which he entrusted to a friend before fleeing Paris and the Nazis. That friend, the French intellectual Georges Bataille, who worked as a librarian at the Bibliothèque nationale, hid the papers in an archive at the library. The manuscript was only rediscovered after the war, after both Benjamin and Bataille had died.

Natalia Braginskaya describes the “immense responsibility, immense excitement to … pronounce ‘It exists’ after many years of ‘non-existing’.” Is “nonexistence” inevitable? Is humanity doomed to a cycle of the everyday and the precious being lost and unlost, forgotten and unforgotten and forgotten again? Some losses are truly lost. The vandalism and wreckage wrought by ISIL on ancient art and artifacts in Palmyra, Syria; by the Taliban who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan; not to mention by the Nazis who in World War II deliberately destroyed or absconded with invaluable cultural artworks—these are losses that can never be undone.

But humans are seekers and savers at heart. There will always be those among us who long to unearth the hidden, to make the unknown known, counterbalancing our tendency to forget, neglect, lose, and demolish. “Hey Ringo” may or may not ever rival “Hey Jude,” but even the lesser discoveries enhance and texture the store of human knowledge.

Our capacity for paying attention—melding curiosity with care—is a function of self-preservation. Our earliest ancestors survived by paying attention, and as culture developed, it too survived because people tended to it. They paid attention to the things that enriched them: music, art, literature—not just the ideas but the artifacts that represented those ideas.

If we spend enough time in our lives learning about whatever we most love, we will carry that knowledge to such unlikely places as neglected storage rooms and dusty repository cabinets, everyday attics and garages. Even to something as in plain sight as an unopened piano bench.

Bradford Morrow is the author of a short story collection and eight novels including Trinity Fields, The Diviner’s Tale, The Forgers, and now, The Prague Sonata. He is also the editor of Conjunctions, which he founded in 1981.

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