Sunday, March 29, 2015

Five Great Works of Classical Music Left Unfinished

Before the modern era of vaccines, penicillin, and germ theory, people often died young or unexpectedly. Many great composers, including Mozart and Schubert, died before the age of 35. Too often, this meant that incredible works of music were left unfinished by the composer's untimely death. Though sometimes a student or colleague would step up to complete a work, as with Mozart's Requiem, the end result still leaves the listener wondering about what the original composer might have accomplished, had he lived. Here's my list of great unfinished music.

1. Mozart's Requiem 

In one of the tragic ironies of history, Mozart's final, unfinished masterpiece was a Requiem, or Mass for the Dead. Though movies like Amadeus dramatized the work's origins, suggesting that a mysterious masked man commissioned the Requiem to drive Mozart to his death, it's actual history is far less dramatic (though more bizarre). In fact, a man named Count Franz von Walsegg made a habit of commissioning works from other composers, then passing them off as his own. He asked Mozart to write a Requiem Mass that he could then dedicate to his recently deceased wife. Unfortunately, Mozart himself grew desperately ill (possibly from kidney failure) while he worked on this last masterpiece. In the end, he completed the Introit, and most of the Kyrie, Dies Irae, and Offertory, as well as the first eight bars of the heart-rending Lacrymosa. After his death, his widow, Constanze, gave the music to Mozart's student Franz Xavier Sussmeyer, in hopes that he might complete the score. 

2. Puccini's Turandot

Puccini discovered that he had throat cancer shortly after he began work on his last opera, Turandot. He received radiation treatments, which were state-of-the-art at the time. Despite the treatments, his doctors realized he was seriously ill, although they did not tell Puccini, only his son. Still, Puccini caught on enough that he desperately tried to finish his opera. The first two acts were completed in their entirety, but much of the third act was in the form of a piano/vocal score, and some parts of the libretto didn't have music at all. After his death, his editor chose Franco Alfano to finish the score using Puccini's sketches. Nonetheless, at the first performance, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the performance at the point where Puccini's writing ended. He said "Here the Maestro laid down his pen," then walked off the stage, in a tribute to the terrible loss of Puccini.

3. Bartok's Viola Concerto

William Primrose, a fierce advocate for the viola and a famous viola soloist, commissioned Bela Bartok to write a viola concerto. Unfortunately, Bartok was in the final stages of leukemia when he began work on the concerto and was only able to complete a few sketches before his death. Bartok's friend Tiber Serly initially completed the concerto in 1949. Since then Bartok's son Peter and violist Paul Neubauer completed another edition. Though violists everywhere love the Bartok Viola Concerto, we mourn that Bartok never had a chance to finish it. 

4. Schubert's Symphony in B minor

While most of the great works on this list are unfinished because of the tragic death of the composers, Schubert completed the first two movements of his B minor Symphony six years before his death, then abandoned the work. Scholars don't know the exact reasons he stopped working on such a promising symphony. He may have associated it with a severe illness, or possibly he was distracted by another composition. Still, the two movements Schubert did complete are a beloved part of the repertoire.

5. Alban Berg's Lulu

Like Puccini, Alban Berg had completed the first two acts of his opera before his untimely death in 1935, but the third act was only in the form of a piano/vocal score. His widow immediately enlisted the help of Berg's mentor, Schoenberg, to orchestrate the final act. Schoenberg initially accepted the task, but when he realized how much work it would take, he backed out. Angry, Berg's widow Helene refused to allow any other composer to finish the score, so for years only the first two acts and the completed parts of the third were performed. It was only after Helene's death that Friedrich Cerha orchestrated the final act of the opera, allowing Lulu to be performed in its entirety.


  1. I would add Mahler's 10th, Bruckner's 9th, and Weber's Drei Pintos

  2. Great suggestions! Maybe I'll do another post.