The fingerprints of musical greatness

Handwritten scores and letters by Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and more are to be offered in New York on 15 June. Forming part of the Metropolitan Opera Guild Collection, they offer riveting insights into the gripes and triumphs of history’s greatest composers

Ever since the Romantic era, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the ‘cult of the artist’ has dominated cultural appreciation: the belief that the creator of a special work should be revered for his or her unique talent. In the 21st century, as the world becomes increasingly and inexorably computerised, that reverence is perhaps growing greater still.

We live in an age of digital reproduction and distribution, in which documents are copied and shared globally within seconds. In this context, the handwritten manuscripts of artists accrue increasingly greater value and prestige.

On 15 June Christie’s offers manuscript scores and intimate letters from the Metropolitan Opera Guild Collection. They offer extraordinary insights into the lofty aspirations and quotidian trials of such great figures as Schubert, Beethoven, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, to name but a few.

VIDEO: Robert Sutherland, Chief Librarian at the Metropolitan Opera: ‘One feels closer to the composer, seeing the actual handwriting’

Penned in May 1817 and extending over eight pages, the Schubert manuscript is an autograph score for Piano Sonata in A-flat major, D 557. This bright, breezy sonata with clear echoes of Mozart has long intrigued musicologists. Unusually, its third and final movement is in the key of E Flat, rather than in the tonic key of A Flat (in which the piece begins). Here was a classical sonata that rejected the classical principle of monotonality.

Franz Schubert © akg-images

Franz Schubert © akg-images

Many scholars have praised Schubert’s experimentation. Others prefer to argue that he left the piece unfinished, even mooting the existence of a missing, fourth movement. For non-specialists, what’s striking — and attractive — about this score, though, is how clean and clear Schubert's penwork is. So much so that a musician would be able to play from it directly, without the need for a fair copy, much less a printed version.

VIDEO: Howard Watkins, Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, plays Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A-flat Major

As for Beethoven, has any composer in history been shrouded in so much myth? To the extent that his music is routinely explained by, and appreciated for, the state in which he wrote it. This is especially true of his final works — the Ninth Symphony and late string quartets — attributed as they are to a tormented genius: a totally deaf, increasingly ill Beethoven, bitterly at odds with his nephew and sole heir, Karl. The legend goes that, forced to inhabit his own private aural universe, he was inspired to produce music of such profundity that it has never been matched.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

The Christie’s sale includes a late, autograph manuscript by the composer, dated to 1825, two years before his death. It’s a two-side leaf taken from one of his notebooks: on one side it boasts early sketches for the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132; on the other, a set of notes relating to the Ninth Symphony, Op. 125, listing instrumental parts for viola, second violin, bassoon, horn and flutes.

‘Beethoven’s manuscript scores are as messy and knotty as his character was’

John Allison, Opera magazine

We can follow here the origins of two masterworks on one piece of paper. Among the most eye-catching features are the blotches of ink on the recto, making some of the words unreadable and seeming to reflect an agitated mind at work. ‘There’s rarely a direct correlation between a composer’s personality and the way he wrote his scores,’ says John Allison, editor of Opera magazine. ‘Graphology doesn’t tend to get you too far. But Beethoven is a striking exception. His manuscripts (like this one) are as messy and knotty as his character was.’

Haydn is among others whose handwritten music will be sold. It’s as if these composers’ work is no longer enough for us. We want clues as to what sort of mind created it — to reveal the secrets behind the virtuosity. And where better to look than their manuscript scores?

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn

In truth, secrets are usually hard-won. But there’s still a veritable thrill to seeing the first drafts of greatness. The sale includes 20 bars by Bellini from the opening scene of an early version of his opera, Norma, as well as 50 bars from an early version of Richard Strauss's opera, Capriccio.

There’s a veritable thrill to seeing the first drafts of greatness

To see these sheets is to be offered privileged access to the path of creation. So privileged, in fact, that we even find ourselves a step ahead of the composer, insofar as we know exactly what is to come afterwards.

Richard Wagner offers another case in point. He is credited with revolutionising opera as people knew it, boldly shaking off its showy Italianate roots and introducing the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (or ‘total art work’) — unifying music, drama and poetry into a penetrating, single art form. Wagner’s most famous attempt at realising his ideal was with Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle) of 1876.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

In a coup for Wagnerians, the auction includes an autograph score of the excerpts he conducted in concert in Vienna in 1862 from the first work in the cycle, Das Rheingold. This was the debut public performance of material from the then still-embryonic Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Scores combine elements of writing and drawing, like abstract self-portraits

With their array of clefs, notes, time signatures and other symbols, musical scores might be considered works of art in their own right. Certainly they combine elements of both writing and drawing, and as such serve as a kind of abstract self-portrait. Manuscript scores bring us closer — as close as is possible — to our musical heroes.

Composers’ Letters

A composer’s letters can reveal the intimate, the momentous and the mundane — the collaborations they entered into, how they learned from other composers, and sometimes how they fought back bitter jealousies. The Metropolitan Opera Guild letters also record the grumblings of frustrated creatives —unhappy with obtuse directors; depressed by uncultured audiences; angry at unscrupulous agents.

Composer Gregory Spears: ‘The letters return us to who these people actually were, rather than the myth’

In this letter to his father, the composer Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opens with an apology. ‘You must forgive me if I don’t write very much, but it is impossible to find time to do so’. After listing 22 concerts and his teaching commitments, he writes, ‘Well, haven’t I enough to do? I don’t think in this way I can possibly get out of practice.’

Mozart also reveals his growing fame in Vienna, writing, ‘Richter, the clavier virtuoso, is giving six Saturday concerts in the said room. The nobility subscribed, but remarked that they did not care much about going unless I played.’

Letters such as this from Mozart to his father are extremely rare — only two have been seen at auction in the past 20 years.

This good-humoured letter from Ludwig van Beethoven to his friend, Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz (1759-1833), a civil servant and amateur cellist, shows the wit of the composer, and reveals a more mundane aspect of his life: that he needed pens.

‘Kindly pluck some feathers out of yourself, and put them on us,’ he writes. ‘We have tried to do without you, but we must shortly beg your Mastership to communicate to us the secret of your skill, which we recognise to the full — quills, of which we are at present of want, we have none.’

There are more than 100 letters from Beethoven to Zmeskall, a record of an enduring relationship that continued right up to the composer’s death in 1827. Zmeskall was a great support to Beethoven, providing him with pens, a watch, and small loans. In this letter Beethoven addresses his friend as ‘Seneskall’, poking fun at the pronunciation of his name and at his links to Hungarian aristocracy.

This letter from French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz to inventor and musician Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), dated from around 1852, remembers an important development in Western music: the invention of the saxophone. The saxophone was key to the evolution of jazz in the 20th century, and immortalised Sax’s place in the history of modern music. However, the instrument’s popularity came later; during his lifetime Sax was taken to court by rival instrument-makers, and died in poverty.

Berlioz was an enthusiastic supporter of Sax and his instruments. Of the saxophone he writes: ‘Its principal merit in my view is the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious, sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned, dreamy or melancholic, or vague, like the weakened echo of an echo, like the indistinct plaintive moans of the breeze in the woods and, even better, like the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it has been struck’.

This fascinating letter from Giuseppe Verdi to the Italian soprano Romilda Pantaleoni (1847-1917) offers an insight into the personal dramas of life as a composer. Written as a riposte to claims he criticised her performance in his opera Otello, Verdi writes, ‘It is never a happy affair to have to deal, directly or indirectly, with the courts. After all, if I were to be questioned, my report would not amount to much: simply to deny what your lawyer has said, that at the first performance of Otello, that I shouted, hands in my hair, “This is not my Desdemona. Never, never!” I have never stooped to such vulgarities and those words are completely false.’

Verdi had thought Pantaleoni unsuitable when casting the opera, but had been persuaded to hire her by the conductor Franco Faccio, with whom Pantaleoni was intimately involved. Despite his protestations, it seems likely that Verdi did criticise her, if not in the way her lawyers reported. Verdi wrote to Franco Faccio in April 1887, ‘Let’s have no illusions; Pantaleoni was not good.’

Igor Stravinksy wrote this letter to an unidentified recipient about his last classical opera, The Rake’s Progress, which premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1951. Based on the etchings of William Hogarth, the opera’s libretto was written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman — described by Stravinsky as ‘surely one of the most beautiful of libretti’.

This letter also outlines Stravinsky’s philosophical musings on music and opera, as he states: ‘I believe “music drama” and “opera” to be two very, very different things. My life work is a devotion to the latter.’

The Metropolitan Opera Guild Collection sale takes place at Rockefeller Center, New York, on 15 June. To explore all the lots, please visit this page