As It Happens

Musicologist completes Mozart's unfinished songs, admits it was 'a bit presumptuous'

Timothy Jones says he understands why some people might find it a bit presumptuous that he took it upon himself to complete Mozart's unfinished compositions.

Timothy Jones releases choose-your-own-adventure style album with different possible endings

Mozart expert Timothy Jones, right, has written possible endings to several of Mozart's uncompleted works. (Historical Archives/Getty Images, Submitted by Timothy Jones)

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Timothy Jones says he understands why some people might find it a bit presumptuous that he took it upon himself to complete Mozart's unfinished compositions.

"I mean, I think I'm a bit presumptuous to have done this, in a way," the British musicologist and Mozart expert told As It Happens host Carol Off. "But I'm not trying to write fake Mozart and I'm not trying to sort of put myself on a pedestal next to him."

Jones, a professor at London's Royal Academy of Music, started writing endings to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's unfinished songs as an academic experiment.

But before he knew it, he'd written enough to complete an album, which was released on Friday on the Channel Classics label, and performed by violinist Rachel Podger and pianist Christopher Glynn.

The whole project began 10 years ago, Jones said. 

"I was writing a book that was quite boringly technical about how Mozart's music is very expressive and dynamic. And I became particularly interested in trying to figure out what I could learn from the music he hadn't finished, as well as the pieces that he had," he said. 

He had plenty to work with. In the last decade of his life alone, Mozart wrote more than 100 fragments of compositions that he never completed.

"I found I could possibly say more efficiently what I wanted to know about these fragments in notes rather than in words," he said.

"One thing that I was really keen to do was to get across the idea that I haven't got a clue how Mozart would have finished these unfinished pieces, but I wanted to sort of dramatize the fact that they are very open-ended. That's what led me to make more than one completion of these fragments, to sort of hammer home the idea that this music could have gone in all sorts of different directions had Mozart carried on with it."

New York Times classical music editor Zachary Woolfe called it a "choose-your-own-adventure approach."

"I suppose, yes, exactly," Jones said of the description. "I mean, you can certainly choose your own version of this disc."

I'm sure he wouldn't have liked me to have done it, and I'd much rather he'd done it than it fell to me.- Timothy Jones, Mozart expert 

Jones isn't disclosing to listeners which parts of the recordings are Mozart's and which are his. 

"That's a great guessing game that they'll have to play, I think, is where Mozart stops and I start," he said.

"There have been plenty of instances in the last seven years or so where quite well-known musicians have been playing some of these completions, and they've either said, 'Oh, I think you've gone wrong there,' and it turns out it's something that Mozart wrote. Or occasionally — and it's very nice when this happens — they'll say, 'Oh I particularly like what Mozart did at that point.' And it turns out it's me rather than Mozart."

But Jones didn't just improvise all willy-nilly. The longtime Mozart scholar studied the context in which the fragments were written and used what he knew of the prestigious composer to extrapolate how he might have completed them. 

"Then, when I came to write the actual music, I did it very fast," he said. "We know that [Mozart] wrote very quickly. Because lots of his family talked about how could be sort of lazy for months on end, but then when he started working, he worked very rapidly and very intensively. So most of the composing I did on my 30-minute commute into central London."

Jones says he believes the fragments he worked with were incomplete, but not abandoned. Mozart had a tendency to write in fits and starts, he said, leaving himself enough clues to pick up where he left off later. 

"You can tell when he's abandoned the fragment because he'll usually use a piece of paper for something else. He'll start writing down sums … or he would really start sketching materials for other pieces on the empty space," he said. "All the fragments that I completed don't have any of that. They are just scores that just break off, basically."

Whether Mozart would have wanted someone to complete his work is another question entirely.

"I'm sure he wouldn't have liked me to have done it, and I'd much rather he'd done it than it fell to me," Jones said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill. 

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