• Luka Lah

Continuing Where Mozart Left Off: An Interview with William Drabkin

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Upon the new Music Haven release of the completion of three late sonata fragments left by Mozart, I sat down with Emeritus Professor William Drabkin to discuss ‘historically informed composition’ and his approach to completing the fragments.


LL: In the blog post from 2015 you discussed the issue of originality in what you call ‘historically informed composition’. The central concern you have identified seems to be how a composer works within a distinct style and still says something new. Conscious of this, how do you approach ‘HIC’ and how does this differ from composing pastiche?


WD: To clarify what I mean by ‘HIC’: each time a composer writes a new piece, the corpus of their work gets larger. And if, as is often the case, they are able to say something different in that piece – be it an innovation in form or harmony, or simply a theme or themes of distinct character – then its ‘newness’ helps to give that piece a purpose – one could almost say a justification – within the enlarged repertory. For me, a ‘historically informed’ Mozart completion should not merely ‘tick all the boxes’ of his style and form; it should also be asking the listener to accept it as a work that is somehow different from what has come before and adds to our idea of ‘Mozart’.


If by pastiche composition you mean writing an entirely new piece in an old or familiar idiom, then the main difference is the degree to which I have attempted to adhere to a particular composer’s musical language: harmony, counterpoint, textures. Two years ago, I wrote a Sonata in A minor, for oboe and piano, in what I would describe as mid-19th-century in style. Now there is, admittedly, some of Brahms’ technique discernible in this work, especially in the way the piano and oboe present and share the thematic material; but I did not feel obliged to use Brahmsian textures, harmony and movement design throughout. Stylistically, the work is about a century and a half out of date! And yet there’s nothing quite like it in the repertory: a large-scale sonata for oboe and piano composed in a mainly Austrian–German Romantic idiom.


LL: Upon taking up this monumental challenge, did you have an idea about where the fragments might take you at the outset or did they reveal themselves over time?


WD: I didn’t know where the fragments would lead until I studied them and began trying ways of developing their themes and motifs. I did, however, have a general idea of the shape of Mozart’s first movements – what we call ‘sonata form’, and when a violinist asked me if I would complete the A major Allegro, as a filler to a projected CD of Mozart sonatas, I knew that I would have to write a second subject, a closing subject, a development section and a recapitulation.

Having completed what the movement, I realised that I what I had produced was still a fragment, as it wasn’t a whole sonata! So, when I turned next to the G major sketch I made a conscious effort make what was evidently the beginning of a movement into a stand-alone piece. This wasn’t merely a pastiche exercise: I was working at the outset on something Mozart almost certainly would not have imagined: a piece that starts like a sonata first movement but whose ending sounds like it doesn’t need anything to follow it.


LL: As the original fragments are in different states of completion, how did these differences alter your compositional decisions?


The Allegro in A major is the most substantial and fully written-out fragment, with a rich vein of thematic material, and the main challenge was to compose two new themes that would work well with these; the ‘second subject’ is essentially a new theme, but the closing subject is partly based on one of Mozart’s themes.


In the G major fragment, some of the piano accompaniment is missing, but Mozart does provide a ‘second theme’. So, I didn’t have to provide any thematic material, although the shaping of the whole was a major challenge, for reasons explained above.


The other A major fragment is a sixteen-bar minuet theme, initially scored for piano alone; and it seems that no one else has attempted to make a whole piece out of it. Initially, I was reluctant to tackle such a short fragment, which gives no clue where the music will next be heading. But because it was also in A major, and because there was a clear model for such a piece – the minuet finale of the two-movement K. 304 in E minor, from which I take the marking ‘Tempo di menuetto’ – it made sense to turn it into a companion piece to the Allegro in A. In that way, I was able to complete not only each movement but also make a complete sonata out of the two.


LL: You mentioned the idea of ‘newness’ earlier. What’s ‘new Mozart’ about these three Mozart completions?


In the Allegro in A major, K. Anh. 48, the middle section – the ’development’, where the thematic material gets fragmented and presented in different keys – is somewhat longer than we find in Mozart, as I wanted to dwell on the rich quantity of material that is packed into the 34-bar fragment. To balance this, I’ve included some unexpected twists in the final section (‘recapitulation’), which is now a bit longer than we’d expect.

For the ‘Tempo di Minuetto’ I was more conscious of using a Mozart model to provide a complementary final movement to the foregoing Allegro, so I follow the general design of the minuet of K. 304, A–B–A–C–A plus coda. What is innovatory here is the series of three cadenzas, which gives the piece a larger shape. the first two, for violin and for piano respectively, introduce the reprises of the A-section. The third, which prepares the coda, is a ‘cadenza in tempo’ for the two instruments.

No. 3, has an overall design found nowhere else in the Classical sonata repertory. I have introduced several unexpected harmonic twists without overstepping the boundary of Mozartian grace. Thus, for example, a chain of surprise harmonies (technically, ‘interrupted cadences’) sets the development section in motion; for this I was inspired – emboldened – by two other late works, the Piano Concerto in B flat and Symphony in G minor.


LL: Is this a work of W. A. Mozart or of William Drabkin?


WD: The violin sonata completions can be thought of as a joint effort: Mozart began them, and I continued where he left off. Admittedly, I didn’t get any feedback from my collaborator, and there were places where I had to take a courageous leap: in the harmony, in the form, in the ordering of the themes.

If what I have really tried to do here is to bring some of Mozart’s musical ideas to life, to provide a context for them that is worthy of his name, then they are, after all, works by Mozart. Although I have had to exercise a good deal of imagination to do justice to what he left us, essentially I’ve served only as his editor. And it is as an editor that I’d like my work to be viewed, even if this means applying not only the historical knowledge but also the analytical and creative skills that I have acquired over the years.


William Drabkin, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Southampton and Editor of the ‘Music Analysis’ journal, has written extensively on Beethoven’s sketches, Classical chamber music, and the life and work of the Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker. His completions of Haydn’s last string quartet (1803) and Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in F major (1778) have also been published by Music Haven.

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