Thursday, December 8, 2016

Is this flute concerto a long-lost Mozart composition? (Probably not.)

Last week, my news feeds were full of stories about musical manuscripts and rediscovered compositions:
  1. On November 27, A manuscript of Mahler’s second symphony auctioned at Sotheby’s set a record for the highest sale price of a musical manuscript.
  2. At the same auction, a manuscript of a Beethoven piece failed to sell, and Sotheby’s blames a musicologist for voicing doubts that it’s in Beethoven’s handwriting. 
  3. On December 2, Austria’s Tutti Mozart Orchestra premiered a long-lost flute concerto purported to be by Mozart.
  4. Coincidentally, that same day saw the revival of Stravinsky’s “Funeral Song,” which was lost in the Russian Revolution and recovered in 2015.
Since this blog’s primary purpose is to debunk musical myths, I’m going to focus on event #3: Is this a lost concerto by Mozart? The answer, unfortunately, is: It’s VERY unlikely.

This portrait is from 1777, the same year Mozart
probably didn't orchestrate that concerto.
I have a little inside information that allows me to make that claim. A friend of a friend, Dr. Bruce Alan Brown of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, was contacted by the founder and conductor of the Tutti Mozart Orchestra, Vinicius Kattah, and asked to verify the authenticity of the flute concerto and an additional work. Dr. Brown shared his experience with me via email.

Kattah asked for Dr. Brown’s opinion on two manuscripts: 1) a flute concerto supposedly composed by Johann Baptist Wendling but orchestrated by Mozart, which might have been mentioned in one of Mozart’s letters from 1777 (This is the work performed last Friday), and 2) an oboe concerto with the attribution “Del Sig:r Mozart,” which Kattah suspected was an arrangement of a work originally written for flute. Kattah wanted verification that Mozart could have had a hand in either of these previously-unknown works.

Dr. Brown declined to offer a definitive answer, mostly because the only evidence Kattah provided was fuzzy PDFs of just the solo parts to both concertos (though how a copy of the solo part would help determine whether Mozart wrote the orchestration of the flute concerto is particularly unclear). Dr. Brown shared part of his response with me, where he was very cautious:
I just don’t think one can make a convincing case for either work as a composition by Mozart, with the types & amounts of evidence at hand….Just because the Wendling manuscript is from 1778 & in the hands of copyists known to Mozart does not necessarily mean that it is the piece mentioned in the letter as being a collaboration.  It would take a long, careful study of the facture of the instrumental accompaniments, especially, in order to say something credible about the attribution.
On the oboe concerto, Dr. Brown pointed out,
An arrangement of a flute concerto for oboe is certainly possible, but so are lots of other things!  An attribution to Mozart would need to be supported by a lot more than a copyist’s attribution.
Dr. Brown tells me that Kattah’s original claims about the pieces in their email exchange were modest, because Dr. Ulrich Leisinger, the Director of Research of the Mozart Institute in Salzburg, had already expressed his doubts that the oboe concerto could be by Mozart. But Kattah believed that even the merest possibility of Mozart working on these concertos makes them “interesting.”

But the Tutti Mozart Orchestra did not promote the flute concerto as merely possibly partially by Mozart. Kattah’s claim to Dr. Brown was that the work might have been composed by Wendling and orchestrated by Mozart. In an article about the event, this became:
[A] flute concerto written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he was 21 will receive its world premier [sic]. The score for the work, which Mozart composed for flutist Johann Baptist Wendling in 1777…
No mention of the uncertainty surrounding the work, and a strong implication that Mozart was the sole composer.

Of all the things that musicologists do, verifying the authenticity of scores is something that the general public accepts as a worthwhile skill in our neoliberal society. Television shows from Antiques Roadshow to Pawn Stars feature historians all the time, confirming whether some object is the genuine article. They may not understand exactly how musicologists do it, but they can wrap their heads around the idea that it can be done, and that this is a service that benefits society.

Manuscripts aren’t my specialty in musicology—as someone who works on reception, I often pay more attention to people’s reaction to music than the production of it. However, I can demystify this process a little bit. Several things factor into determining whether a manuscript is genuine:
  • Forensic evidence, such as whether the type of ink was used at that place and time, and whether the watermark shows that the paper was plausibly available to the composer. Somewhat related is handwriting analysis, which comes up in the Beethoven case listed as #2 above. Thanks to crime procedurals like CSI, the public places a lot of faith in these methods, but they’re not definitive.
  • Technical evidence, determining whether the music is in the right style for the composer. These methods are much more esoteric and require a lot of study to become an expert. They consider composers’ training and what techniques they had been exposed to, as well as personal tendencies. Granted, it’s also easy for this verification process to fall into a trap of circular logic—for example, there was a time when people would dispute compositions attributed to Josquin des Prez on the grounds that “Josquin would never do that,” until there were so many examples that people had to begrudgingly admit that, okay, maybe Josquin did do that, sometimes. Nevertheless, this can be a strong tool for authenticating works. Also, if the manuscript uses a notation or a technique that wasn’t in use at the time it’s allegedly from, that makes a strong case against authenticity.
  • Documentary evidence, such as the letter in the case of the flute concerto, or an entry in a journal, or a contract, or an inventory, or a concert review, or any number of non-musical ways to record the existence of a piece of music.
Of course, not every confirmed piece of music has evidence from each category, but the more there is, the more certain a claim can be made. Look at all the documentary evidence surrounding the recovered Stravinsky song, #4 above: We have a record of an earlier performance, Stravinsky mentioned it in multiple memoirs, and we even know a bit about how it got lost. And that’s just what was mentioned in the article—there were probably other factors that confirmed it was Stravinsky’s work. Certainly, it’s easier to track pieces from the 20th century than the 18th, but wars, natural disasters, and other catastrophes continue to happen and always carry the possibility of misplacing things.

So, the article about the flute concerto overstated the possibility that Mozart was involved with the work. Why did it also downplay the significance of Wendling? Does it make any difference whether a piece was by Mozart, or Wendling, or Hoffmeister, or some complete unknown? It wouldn’t change a note, but it certainly affects our perception of the music.

(In the interests of promoting lesser-known composers, here is a flute concerto that we know was by Wendling.)

One of the paradoxes I’ve found in classical music fandom is that people are willing to attribute the value of a piece to “the music itself,” claiming that the artistry is in the arrangement of the notes, yet we also place value on even the least-regarded (even discarded!) works of famous composers precisely because of who wrote them. What do we actually value about this music?

I don’t think there’s any one answer, nor is an answer true for the same person all the time. I’d like to think that some pieces are ingenious on their own, or at least they display features that I’ve been taught to recognize as particularly skillful. And there are some pieces I like because I know the history surrounding them, so I see how they fit into a larger context.

But nowhere is the power of the Great Composer more evident than those two Sotheby’s auctions. Again, people understand the value of musicologists as appraisers, much as they know that art historians can verify whether a painting is a real Degas or Picasso. But in those cases, the painting as an object is the art. For music, the art is more nebulous—it’s the sound, or the arrangement of sound, or our brain’s interpretation of sound… Philosophers have debated this for centuries, but few would say that the “art” resides in the physical page of a symphony. And yet, someone paid £4.5 million (about $5.7 million US) for Mahler’s symphony because it was his. He touched it; he spent time with it; he made it.

That is the heart of the conflict over the Beethoven score. Unlike the Mozart concerto, no one seems to be disputing whether the piece was composed by Beethoven, or even that the manuscript was produced in his lifetime. But £200,000 (about $250,000 US) rested on whether Beethoven himself physically made that object. It is either a holy relic, or it’s unsellable.

Sotheby’s asserts that musicologist Barry Cooper was being irresponsible in casting doubt on the authenticity of the manuscript after only examining a photocopy, whereas Dr. Cooper insists that he had enough evidence to tell that the handwriting was not Beethoven’s, and that it would be irresponsible not to voice his doubts. Granted, I’m predisposed to side with the musicologist, but as Carl Sagan said:
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Sotheby’s has the more extraordinary claim, so the responsibility is on them to provide proof.

(More details about this dispute have been making the news, but the musicological scuttlebutt is that the claim that the manuscript is in Beethoven’s own hand is looking less and less likely.)

I may sound a bit cynical, but I do appreciate the allure of the genuine article. Part of being a historian is developing a historical imagination, the capacity to think about objects and events in contexts very different from your own. Few things articulate the foreignness of the past like physical sensations: understanding that paper felt different, that ink operated differently, that things smelled different, that places impact our bodies differently. It’s possible to develop historical imagination without encountering old objects, but such an experience certainly helps.

Yet I also think that this obsession with Great Men is harmful. The manuscript is still from the early 19th century, even if Beethoven didn’t sanctify it with his own ink. The concertos were composed by someone, even if they weren’t the products of Mozart’s mind. These are still interesting objects in their own right, even if they haven’t passed through the hands of the masters. Why are people willing to pay so much money for physical contact with a composer? What are they actually paying for, and does it have anything to do with music?

Thank you to Jonathan Bellman, Imani Mosley, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Karen Cook for their assistance with this post, and a special thank you to Bruce Alan Brown for sharing his information on the not-Mozart concerto.

“Gustav Mahler £4.5m manuscript breaks record at Sotheby's” on

“Academic denies irresponsibility in Sotheby's Beethoven manuscript row” in the Belfast Telegraph

“Expert who ruled Beethoven score was a fake tried to buy manuscript at knockdown price” by Patrick Foster in The Telegraph

“Flute concerto by Mozart to receive world premier after 239 years” by Jordan Smith on

“Second-Ever Concert of Stravinsky’s Lost ‘Funeral Song’ to Stream Free” by Michael Cooper in The New York Times

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Linda! Reminds me of the Great Mozart Second Bassoon Concerto Discovery (debunked in the 1950s), and, closer to home, of the six "lost" Haydn piano sonatas that were presented by Paul and Eva Badura-Skoda at UCSB in 1993. Mike Beckerman wrote up a nice account in the NYT. In addition to the Great Man obsession, I also think that this incident reflects a larger elevation of composers over performers. I think that we should care more about Wendling as a critical figure in the production and presentation of late 18th C. music in any case. FWIW, I've performed one of his flute quartets and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
    Mike in the Times: