x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The latest tunes from dead composers

A lost movement from one of Ludwig van Beethoven's quartets is just one of several works from dead composers reaching audience members' ears.

There’s a problem with classical music’s greatest composers that drives record companies mad – every last one of them is dead.

Music by the likes of Beethoven and Mozart may still be vitally alive to its fans, but the facts of life mean neither man is likely to bring out new material anytime soon.

Or are they? In fact, this year dead classical greats seem to be lying anything but quiet in their graves. Last month some “new” Beethoven did in fact reach us, in the form of a lost slow movement from the great German’s 1799 String Quartet in G, one of several unplayed scores that have cropped up across Europe.

Pieced together by the British musicologist Barry Cooper from half-forgotten sketches, the quartet was played for the first time in Manchester. While its sound is elegant and beautifully poised, the rediscovered score nonetheless points towards the raw passion of Beethoven’s later romantic works in its stormier middle section, an amazing snapshot of one of our greatest composers in development.

While this is big news for music lovers, Beethoven’s new piece still has this year’s biggest classical hit to contend with – also a long-lost piece rediscovered mouldering away in an archive. Allessandro Striggio’s Renaissance Mass in 40 Parts suddenly found itself chasing albums by The Black Eyed Peas and Take That down the charts this spring, after centuries sleeping peacefully in a Paris archive.

Famous in its day, this Italian mass had gone underground due to an absent-minded scribe, who misspelled the composer’s name and described it as a mass in a measly four vocal parts, instead of the almost unheard of 40.

Released on an album by the vocal group I Fagiolini this spring, this incredibly lush-sounding piece topped the classical music charts for weeks and reached number 68 in the pop charts – pathetic for the likes of Gaga and Beyoncé, admittedly, but a world-beating smash for a long-dead, all-but-forgotten composer.

That’s not all – also rising from the dead this year was a Vivaldi flute concerto, happened upon in a Scottish archive after 200 years of obscurity. The score of Il Gran Mogol was dusted off for performance in Perth this winter, still sounding as fresh and charming as though its 250 years of silence had been nothing. Coming five years after the discovery of the genuinely great Vivaldi masterpiece Dixit Dominus in Dresden – it’s been a busy decade – the flow of new music has started to feel less like a trickle and more like a flood.

So why is this new music coming to light now? The reason lies partly in that most apparently humdrum of a librarian’s tools, the digital database. As archives put their catalogues on computer, they are getting a fresh grip on what is actually lurking in their collections. This may not be the sexiest of explanations – unfortunately there’s not a Da Vinci Code-style team of crack investigators that is flushing out music from Europe’s dusty stacks – but it’s a reminder that even dull procedures such as proper data entry can unearth exciting results.

And then there’s fashion. The fact is that scores from composers such as Vivaldi and Striggio disappeared from view because for centuries no one gave two hoots about their music.

Most people in the 19th century thought Vivaldi was a fussy has-been knocking out generic Baroque music by the yard – that is, when they thought about him at all. It took a radical reassessment of Vivaldi’s reputation in the 20th century (in other words, a whole lot of people deciding he was actually great) to make tracking down his scores seem like a worthwhile project in the first place. Striggio is still at the beginning of this process – this year’s album release is the first time in centuries he’s caused much of a stir.

The tantalising thing about all this new material is that there may be plenty more out there. Back in the 1980s the same Barry Cooper who reassembled Beethoven’s new string quartet put together a version of the composer’s so-called 10th Symphony, though Beethoven is well-known for having written only nine.

Cooper’s piece was a hypothesis cobbled together from more than 50 fragments, but there is strong evidence that Beethoven was working on a new symphony shortly before his death, which some musicologists have suggested might still survive. Could a manuscript for this work be hiding out somewhere, waiting to be discovered? We might all find some day that Beethoven isn’t all that dead at all.