Harvard Prof. Completes Mozart's Incomplete Works

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Later this month, a trio of previously unfinished compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will have their Boston premiere — in completed form.

They weren’t finished by Mozart, of course; the legendary composer died in 1791.


Instead, the new sections were written by Harvard University music professor Robert Levin, who recently completed the unfinished works.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Levin about the process of finishing the music of one of the greatest composers of all time, and asked him why Mozart left behind such an unusually high number of incomplete pieces — more than 140 — at the time of his death.

Robert Levin: He was a short-order cook. He was trying to be a freelance artist at a time when there basically weren't freelance artists. Most of the time he was scrounging to be able to feed his wife and his kids. And, as a result, if he decided to write a string quartet and somebody knocked on the door and said, "I want a wind serenade," he stopped writing on the string quartet and started to work on the wind serenade because it was a life and death matter.

Sacha Pfeiffer: When I hear about unfinished works by Mozart, I can't help but wonder whether Mozart really never got around to finishing them or whether maybe he intentionally left them unfinished because he wasn't happy with them and in his mind it was a discard. So when you're finishing something, how can you be sure Mozart really wanted it finished?

One can never be 100 percent sure. But the argument is that Mozart didn't finish them because they weren't good enough. Well, we can also look at the pieces and decide whether we think they weren't good enough, and when you look at them you realize that they were more than good enough and some of them have more interesting ideas than some of the finished pieces.

The Mozart pieces that you completed are a trio of movements composed for piano, violin and cello. Let's listen to one of them and, if you would, could you identify where Mozart's work stops and yours picks up?


Let's listen to the movement in G major.

(music begins) This is all Mozart. String parts by me, piano by Mozart. Violin by Mozart, cello by me. Violin part by me, just the piano part by Mozart. Violin part by Mozart, everything else by me. Everything by me. (music ends)

Now, to my ear — and, I assume, the ear of many listeners — I can't tell the difference between the original and the newer part. But I assume that that's a sign of success, when the hand-off is seamless.

That's exactly right. It's always my goal that a well-educated listener will be unable to detect any seam whatsoever. That shows that I've done my work well.

I would assume it must take a fair amount of confidence to be willing to take on the challenge of finishing the work of such a giant of the classical music world. Is it intimidating when you sit down to do that?

Well, it is a lesson in humility, yes. Because the thing about Mozart that is so remarkable is that it seems on its surface so simple. The more you discover about it, the more sophistication you realize lurks below the surface.

I want to play a different piece of music that you finished. This is the trio movement in D minor.

(music begins) From here it's only Mozart on the piano and there's nothing else, but my version doesn't call for anything else so you can't tell that I've added anything, because in fact I've subtracted; the earlier completion had a cello part here. From here on it's all by me. Now, if listeners paid attention to what we just did, they would hear that the piano started by playing a passage all by itself. And then when the strings came in, they played the same thing. This is a typical Mozart thing: it's a democracy. What the piano gets to do, the strings get to do. So there's nothing really special about my decision to do that because it's clear that Mozart would have done that. I can be 100 percent certain that Mozart wanted the string players to do what the piano did. But then after that there are small questions, and then bigger ones. (music ends)

We should note that when Mozart stopped working on a piece he didn't come to a dead halt at the same place with every instrument in the music. Oftentimes, he got a little further along with the piano, maybe not as far with the violin. So you are coming in and out at different places in the piece.

Absolutely. What his idea is is to establish a train of thought so that when he comes back to the piece, no matter how much later it is, his astonishing memory could re-gestate the whole piece — he could rethink it.

If Mozart were able to hear the pieces that he started that you then finished, what do you think he'd say to you? How would be size them up?

That's a question to put the fear of God into anybody. He might say, "Well, I mean, all things considered, it wasn't so bad." He was not actually very generous in his words of praise. But I would hope that he would perhaps say that it wasn't too bad.

The three Mozart pieces recently finished by Levin, along with other Mozart works, will be performed at the free “Mozart Marathon” at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Feb. 25, at 8 p.m.

This program aired on February 16, 2012.


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