From music, to poetry, to ancient African manuscripts, Boston University researchers are interested in the ways in which today’s audiences engage historical texts. They are driven by a passion for discovery, as well as for clarification, so that contemporary readers and musicians can enjoy great works as their authors intended. When it comes to manuscripts that have been lost, misinterpreted, or undeciphered, these three faculty demonstrate that there’s plenty of work to be done—if you know where to look.
To mark the one hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s birth, in 1856 his son Karl Thomas cut up one of his late father’s manuscripts and distributed the pieces to friends as “Mozart mementos.” And that, it turns out, was only the start of the trouble for the Mozart Horn Concerti.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the pieces were reassembled and reunited with another part of the score, long missing, after it surfaced at auction. By then, a number of partial or otherwise inaccurate versions of the concerti were in circulation—looking not quite like Mozart had intended. “I’ve had students bring in editions that were everything from just slightly objectionable to horrendous, including abridged versions, and concerti in incorrect keys,” says Eric Ruske, an acclaimed horn soloist and professor of music in the College of Fine Arts. “The first concerto was written in D major, and I’ve had students bring in printed music in the key of E-flat.” Such changes make the piece easier to play, Ruske explains, but watering down the music only sets up young horn players for confusion later. “It’s completely wrong, because if you ever tried to perform it with an orchestra, it absolutely wouldn’t work.”
Other editions go too far in the other direction, offering more articulation and dynamic markings—indicating whether a note is tongued or slurred, and whether it’s played loudly or softly—than are actually in the manuscript. Editors might see this as a way to put their own personal stamp on a piece, but it’s important to make clear to readers that “those markings aren’t Mozart’s. They aren’t authentic.”
So Ruske set about providing what all students of the horn, from beginners to professionals, desperately needed: a complete set of the Mozart Horn Concerti, faithful to the original manuscripts, with minimal editorializing. His edition was published by Cimarron Music Press last year.
“Some editors have a light touch and some have a heavy touch. I wanted as little touch as possible,” says Ruske. “My job was to give Mozart to my students in as unadulterated a form as I can, and then to say, use your imagination. I did include my own cadenzas”—moments in the music left blank by the composer in which the orchestra stops and the soloist is meant to improvise—“but I remind students that these are just suggestions, templates, and they should create their own.”
A certain amount of experimentation—and fun, he adds—is in keeping with the spirit of the concerti. In Mozart’s day, the horn was a much less sophisticated instrument than it is now, so the concerti are a lighthearted affair. Though they’ve since become a crucial part of horn players’ oeuvre, they were originally composed for a close family friend, not to secure a place in musical history.
“He dedicated all of the concerti to his friend Joseph Leutgeb, and the original manuscripts are accordingly filled with bawdy jokes and asides,” says Ruske. “It’s a great reminder of the fact that while we tend to place Mozart on a pedestal, or in a crystal case like a museum piece, this is living, breathing music.”
Another keen interest of Ruske’s is transcribing centuries-old scores for horn. Although many instruments were more or less the same in Mozart’s day as in our own, the horn was a relatively crude affair back then. “The modern piano has evolved from the harpsichord and the fortepiano, but we can still play music written for those instruments on a piano today. My wife’s violin, meanwhile, was made during Bach’s lifetime,” says Ruske. “But in 1733, my instrument was essentially a conical tube.”
In time, both the horn’s technology and technique would improve—thanks in large part to the addition of buttons, called valves—but such advancements came too late for horn players to enjoy the fruits of the Classical period, which stretched from 1750 to 1830.
Or so it is commonly thought. But in fact, says Ruske, the problem is a failure of imagination, not timing. “I tell my students, as a horn player you’re not chained to the music that was written expressly for your instrument,” he says. “If we only listen to music that was written for horn, we stop learning and growing.”
Ruske himself is always on the lookout for pieces that could survive a translation—or trans-instrumentation, so to speak—to horn. “When I’m listening to the repertoire of other instruments, I’m constantly asking myself, would that piece work for me? As soon as you start looking outside the box, you have access to the instrumental and vocal music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert—music that is technically and harmonically more interesting than the sounds the instrument at the time was capable of producing.”
Ruske has recorded and published successful transcriptions of music originally written for flute, cello, piano, trumpet, and violin, many of which are collected in a seven-CD box set released by Albany Records. A transcription by BU doctoral candidate Kristen Sienkiewicz of a Bach fugue (from a sonata written for violin) for horn quartet was published by Cimarron Music Press.
Not every piece of music is a good candidate for transcription. “By and large, I try not to do any pieces that require too much tinkering,” says Ruske. “When I decide to transcribe a violin sonata, I have to make sure that double stops”—two notes played at once, which cannot be done on a horn—“aren’t such an integral part of the music that you’re going to lose the original character and intent of the music. I never make cuts. If I can’t play the piece as it was originally written, in the original key, with all of the original notes, I’m not going to play it.”
Even so, the possibilities for horn players today are seemingly endless. “There’s an assumption that the world of classical music is finite,” says Ruske. “It’s not finite. Find it, transcribe it, live it, learn it, love it.”