History is rife with creative works that were left unfinished. Circumstances may prevent their completion. For Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” it was the death of the author. With Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s famous portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, it was the subject who died, less than four hours after the painting was begun.
Death is hardly the only cause. As a film director, Orson Welles was plagued by circumstances that left many of his pictures unfinished. Other reasons could be as simple as the artist’s choice to abandon further work on a project, or perhaps even deem a work finished that others may perceive as incomplete.
Classical music abounds with examples of works left unfinished by composers, for whatever reason. In light of that, and to celebrate its 20th–anniversary year, the Brentano String Quartet has been touring a new project called “Fragments: Connecting Past and Present,” for which it invited six living composers to write their own new compositions in response to unfinished works by notable composers of the past. The quartet will perform the concert at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at Spivey Hall.
Spivey Hall took part in a similar project with the Brentanos, who are based in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2002, which interlaced the music of J.S. Bach and 10 living composers. It proved a huge success. The quartet returned to Spivey in March 2008, smack in the middle of the infamous blizzard of that year. Spivey Hall Director Sam Dixon recalls that the group’s flight to Atlanta was ping-ponged through multiple airports, and they arrived at the hall an hour and a half after the concert was supposed to begin. Dressed in the blue jeans they had traveled in, the Brentanos performed until midnight for an audience that decided to stick around to hear them.
After that concert ended, Brentano first violinist Mark Steinberg approached Dixon about a new commission and presented the idea that became “Fragments: Connecting Past and Present.” The quartet decided that if they could put together a consortium of organizations that had presented their concerts in the past, everyone could chip in a reasonable sum to commission the composers, Charles Wuorinen, Sofia Gubaidulina and John Harbison among them. “Those are all important composers in my world,” says Dixon. “I immediately said yes. And voilà, here it is and we’re part of this project.” Some 14 leading concert presenters participated in the consortium, including Carnegie Hall.
Each new piece follows the fragment on which it reflects, pairing Gubaidulina with J.S. Bach, Harbison with Haydn, Vijay Iyer with Mozart, Bruce Adolphe with Schubert and Stephen Hartke with Shostakovich. The exception is Wuorinen, whose “Marian Tropes” embeds the music of Josquin and Dufay within the new work. “There are no surviving unfinished works from the 15th century, as there are no scores, only part-books,” Wuorinen wrote about being the odd man out. “And clearly no one bothered to produce a part-book for an unfinished work.”
For those wanting to learn more, Dixon will engage in a pre-concert talk about the project with Steinberg at 7:15 p.m., the complete program notes are available by clicking here, and the video above shows Steinberg and composers Adolphe, Iyer and Wuorinen discussing the project.