Which Came First And Does Anyone Care?

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin conducts concerts of British music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall on 10 March and 7 April; and on 5 April, in Cadogan Hall, he conducts the premiere of James Whitbourn’s “Annelies, The Diary of Anne Frank”

After an absence of about half a year, it is my pleasure to return to the UK but this time with the Royal Philharmonic. There is some connection to the past here as this was the orchestra with which I made my London debut in 1974. At that time, I jumped in for an ailing Sir Adrian Boult and the program consisted of English music.

Well, this time it is also British works that make up the programs I will conduct. Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton are on each of the Royal Festival Hall concerts. Vaughan Williams’s London and Fifth Symphonies are the major symphonic works. I last did the VW London at a Prom a couple years ago. At that time I tried, unsuccessfully, to have the Vaughan Williams Trust allow me to perform the original version that was recorded successfully by Richard Hickox. They would not consent and so I did the revised edition that has been played for most of the work’s life.

In his comprehensive survey of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, Lionel Pike analyses the nine works. Most of the exhaustive musical research is well thought out, but I was a bit surprised to find that he did not do a comparative evaluation of the different versions of this particular symphony. Anytime a musician encounters two or more choices, it brings up a number of dilemmas.

In Washington, such a situation arose recently. We had embarked on a project that looked at the 1940s, the most fertile period of creativity for American artists. Among the works that we played was William Schuman’s Third Symphony. This piece, along with the symphonies by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland (also given the number 3) are considered a kind of holy trinity of works in this form. A few years earlier, I had been poring over scores at the Library of Congress when I came across five or so minutes of music that Schuman had eliminated after the successful premiere, in 1941, of his Symphony. Of course I wondered why he cut these portions out.

Upon closer examination, I felt that it was worth resurrecting these deleted passages, something I had also done with the Copland, although that is only about 8 measures. Now we had significant additional material to consider. The Schuman family objected strongly to this and when I did a studio recording for the BBC of the work, I respected the family’s wishes and did not include the excised material.

But the festival in DC was about the creative burst of the artists. I argued that since the manuscript existed at the Library and the orchestral parts did not have the music deleted but simply crossed out, it was fair game to do. I also made some musical points as to why we should hear it. So for our performances, this music was played for the first time since 1941. On reflection, I was glad to do it and think that at least two of the deleted sections should be reinstated. I knew Schuman quite well and was kicking myself for never asking him about this material.

One other note. I also asked three of my composer friends the following question: “If, 60 years from now, someone finds an original version of one of your works, would you think it should be heard?” We are talking of very prominent composers, so it was with a degree of amusement that two of them said “In 60 years, we will just be grateful if any of our music is played”. They all believed that final thoughts were just that, but that it was always worthwhile to understand the context of that decision.

Since the VW symphony exists in at least two versions, it really should be at the discretion of the performer as to what is played. This happens in opera all the time and only adds to the listener’s appreciation of a work.

I will let you all in on a little secret. When I was recording the Vaughan Williams Symphonies (with the Philharmonia Orchestra for RCA), we played 16 measures that the composer eliminated from his final symphony. Once again the Trust would not allow this material to be released. But we did record it and perhaps someday, if anyone is interested enough to want to make this available, perhaps that lovely passage will come to light as well.

In any event, I look forward to returning to London, regardless of which version or even what music I am playing.

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