By Inge Kjemtrup | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart loved to play billiards. The story goes that as he set up his next shot, he was composing his next piece of music. He enjoyed mathematics too, scribbling equations in the margins of his compositions. There is even a piece attributed to him in which a roll of the dice determines what will happen next.
This agile playfulness lines up nicely with our conception of Mozart as a person. We have a very different take on Mozart the composer, imagining him to be a kind of divinely inspired genius, committing his flawless works to paper. From his mind to the manuscript.
But what if this daunting image of perfectionism is wrong? What if there was an element of randomness in Mozart’s compositional process? Could it be that with a change of weather, patron, or performer, some of Mozart’s most famous works might have been very different—yet still unmistakably him?
That’s the intriguing premise behind a recently released recording of new completions of Mozart sonata fragments, featuring period-instrument violinist Rachel Podger and keyboard player Christopher Glynn.
For this new Channel Classics disc, the person who carried on composing where Mozart left off is Timothy Jones, musicologist and deputy principal at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London. His work and this disc provide a glimpse into Mozart’s working methods, challenging our notions of infallible artistic genius while, counterintuitively, confirming Mozart’s talent and technical mastery.
It’s fitting that Rachel Podger, the highly regarded period-instrument violinist, whose recordings of the complete Mozart sonatas with fortepiano player Gary Cooper are regarded as landmark interpretations, would be the one to take this on. It all began when Jones approached Podger one day to ask for advice on the violin writing for his fragment project. She was intrigued and the project began to develop through the RAM, where they are colleagues. The third side of this Academy triangle is Christopher Glynn, best known for performance on the modern piano in many vocal recitals. He also plays historical keyboard, including with the prominent vocal group the Sixteen.
When I spoke, separately, with them on Zoom in mid-March, their mutual admiration came through. Jones admires Podger’s Mozart sonata series, while she says of him, “He knows every note of Mozart. He just understands how Mozart works, his whole being, not just his musical mind, but also his personality. I would say that lot of people who think they know Mozart don’t know the whole person. So, I think any more windows into his life are really beneficial.”
Timothy Jones began his project of completing Mozart fragments over ten years ago. He was preparing to write a book, Mozart and Expressive Density, when he received an irresistible challenge from a colleague. “He bet me a pint of beer that I wouldn’t be able to apply all the stuff I’ve been writing about,” says Jones. “[He said], ‘If you’ve got some understanding of how this music is really fitting together in detail, let’s see if you can synthesize it and make a completion.’”
Once he started, Jones found, rather like the character in the movie Sliding Doors, he had many ways to go. “I thought, OK, I’m following a particular thread of the music through in this completion, but I could equally easily imagine five different threads.”
The experience was revelatory. “The music could have gone forward in a similar stylistic way, but just taken a different direction. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do several completions of this to see, not so much that one is better than another, but that there are different pathways through elaborations of the material?’”
Jones was also surprised by the high quality of an unfinished concerto for violin and piano. “We know from a letter that the reason Mozart didn’t finish that was because the concept fell through and other things took over. I thought, well, how many more of these fragments are really top-quality Mozart? I started exploring more and more of them. It took on a momentum of its own in the end.” He adds, “I’ve looked at 20 of these fragments. There are about 100 of them altogether.”
My ears perk up when Jones mentions a string quintet in A minor and a string quartet in E minor, tantalizing glimpses of what the composer might have done next. Jones has also turned his hand to the Requiem, which figures prominently in Amadeus and (wrongly) in the Mozart mythology about his death.
Podger says she came to the completions “with a completely open mind.” Did she have any input into the pieces? “I didn’t have as much impact as you might think. I was very aware that it was his baby. Also, I don’t really feel like I have any place in making suggestions in that way, because I’m not a Mozart scholar. But there were a few times where I played a different accidental and I did query a few things, little passing notes and so on. And then he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. I think that needs to change.’”
The Fantasia in C minor fragment, the disc’s centerpiece, is bracketed by two completions each of three different sonata fragments.
The B-flat sonata fragment that opens the disc dates from around Mozart’s arrival in Vienna in 1781. “In a letter to his father, Mozart says this was ‘a sonata I wrote for myself with Antonio Brunetti playing the violin,’” Jones says. “I think you can tell he is writing it for himself because the piano writing is more technically challenging than any of the piano concertos, and the violin, although it has some melodic material, is there to support the virtuosic kind of piano writing.”
The G major fragment, dating from 1789, is “very expressive and operatic,” says Podger. Adds Jones, “Mozart had this genius for being able to juxtapose material in the most unexpected ways but make it work. Part of that is the fact that the violin and the piano are much more equal partners than they were in the earlier sonatas.” The second completion of the G major is quite a tour de force for Glynn. “It’s really virtuosic, actually!” he says. “The other [completion] is more conversational, more subtle and interesting.”
The disc’s centerpiece is the Fantasia in C minor, well known as a solo piano work, although a violin part was visible in the manuscript. “I just had to find my role,” says Podger of the added violin part. “And my role would change from bar to bar. So sometimes I was like the cellist doing a bit of bass. Sometimes I was the conversational partner. Sometimes I was preempting, agreeing, questioning all of those things. In any Mozart, but especially in such a kind of free fantasy, that was tricky to find.”
The UK’s pandemic lockdown wreaked havoc on the recording preparation. “The blueprint would be that you perform it a thousand times before you record it, but in a pandemic situation that’s not really possible,” says Podger. She and Glynn were able to perform some of the fragments at Kings Place in London in November, the night before the second lockdown. “It was a special vibe,” Podger recalls. “People felt like they were about to go back to prison. It felt very significant, very moving somehow.”
Two weeks later, the two performers were at a south London church, in a carefully socially distanced recording session with a piano tuner, sound engineer, and producer. Podger describes her relief at performing. “When it’s winter and it’s cold, you just cannot imagine it to be warm. How could it ever be summer again? Then again, in summer, when everything is glorious and colorful and free, you’re thinking, Oh, how could I have felt so dismal then?”
What insights has Jones gained from his work on Mozart’s fragments? “The first thing I’ve learned is that just because these pieces weren’t finished doesn’t mean that he wasn’t learning an awful lot from doing them and that they didn’t have a really big effect on the way he was developing. So often I find that he’s taking more risks at the start of some of these unfinished pieces than he did in the finished works. And maybe one of the reasons he put them aside was that he just needed to think through the implications.
“Another constant is that [the pieces] seem to be ahead of their time. Part of me was thinking what would have happened if Mozart had recovered and didn’t die in December 1791. He’d have finished the Requiem by March 1792. Presumably he’d have gone back to these string quintets and sonatas at some point in the next few years. So, part of this project is a counterfactual history of what Mozart might have done had he lived into the mid 1790s. And my hunch is that it was turning into what we would recognize as late Schubert.”
Jones continues, “He’s becoming more and more innovative and bolder. He does stuff in that late music with an economy and confidence that you really see, even in those amazing masterworks at the middle of the decade. No doubt at all, he was getting more and more original and technically adept from what was already at a high level.”
“I think what the project does is go to the heart of what a sonata is, what a sonata form is,” says Glynn. “It’s an investigation of the possibilities of some musical material and how it might be developed. Any completion of a sonata is only one possible realization of the material, and you know, any great composer could have done it differently.
“It’s totally fascinating, because what Jones has done is not imitating Mozart, it’s like channeling Mozart. We easily forget that he was a great composer, but he was a working composer and he had to please. He had to be aware of different audiences and the different nuances he needed to bring. He wasn’t totally free, you know. He had to earn a living.”
You can see other Mozart-Jones completions here.