Life is Incomplete

I’ve recently been listening through the first-ever integral cycle of the symphonies of Heitor Villa Lobos issued last year on the European label cpo. That this undertaking, which includes seven world premiere recordings, did not come to fruition until more than half a century after Villa-Lobos’s death is somewhat shocking to me considering both the tremendous popularity Villa-Lobos achieved during his lifetime and how immediately appealing and exciting this music is. And perhaps even more shocking is that while the conductor for said undertaking—Carl St. Clair—is from this hemisphere and has been a known champion of New World repertoire, the orchestra—the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR—is not. I’ve been ranting and raving for years about how American orchestras have by and large ignored the most significant contributions to the symphonic literature by the composers of this country, so I probably should not be terribly surprised that they’ve also ignored remarkable treasures from south of our borders.

But the real kicker here, for which no individual or institution can be blamed, is that while this set is labeled and promoted as the “complete symphonies” of Villa-Lobos, it’s missing his Symphony No. 5 “La Paz” (1920). Although it was indeed performed—apparently to great success—in the mid 1920s, the full score as well as all the parts for it seem to be irrevocably lost. The instigators of this project, who actually re-created new parts from several scores that only survived in full score, gave up after looking for well over a decade. Of course, we’ve lost many remarkable accomplishments of human civilization over the millennia due to wars and the ravages of time. But at least theatre fans have had many centuries to come to terms with the fact that only seven complete plays out of the 123 written by Sophocles survive. The idea that a piece of music by a famous composer written only 90 years ago could vanish from the face of the earth is pretty astounding.

All of this has been somewhat cathartic and humbling to me as I am still trying to find several missing pages of a voice and piano score I wrote back in 1982. But it also makes me very wary. What can we do to ensure that the work we are creating will be around after we no longer are? Nowadays lots of folks claim that the internet offers the best hope for the archiving and dissemination of information. Since information stored online exists in multiple locations, if one place where this information is held gets destroyed the same information will still exist elsewhere, or so the argument goes.

Such optimism assumes that there will always be an internet and a means to access things on it that are centuries old. But that requires that there’ll be folks around who are interested in such information and who also have the wherewithal to maintain it. I’m more pessimistic given the ephemeral nature of most web discourse and the accelerated obsolescence of anything technology based. Articles that appeared on the web magazine Andante, which was just around a few years ago, are in a similar black hole as the Villa Lobos Fifth Symphony and the missing five pages of my song cycle.

There is no way we can be assured that anything will survive. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I know composers who have absolutely no interest in their music surviving them. While I’m perhaps more old-fashioned and would like for what I do to outlive me, what I actually need is for the pieces I’ve written to at least be around and be complete for as long as I’m around. Ultimately, however, not even that is guaranteed.

But there’s also a positive side to this. History is always being rewritten. In 1907, archaeologists found about half of an eighth play by Sophocles and rendered any previous attempts at generalizing about the “complete” plays of Sophocles outdated. And I’m always amused when I see collections described as “the complete” you-fill-in-the-blank by someone who is still alive. Elliott Carter has now made several collections of his complete piano music invalid. That’s wonderfully affirmational, and perhaps the only response to dealing with the issue of whether something is complete or not. Perhaps if I can’t find the rest of this piece I’ve lost I should just rewrite it. That’s apparently what Andrzej Panufnik did after his first symphony was destroyed during the Second World War, although he wound up withdrawing and destroying his rewrite. What would you do?

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