Sometimes a piece of music is “withdrawn” from a composer’s catalog. Music that was composed, published, and available is taken back — rescinded. You can’t get it anymore. Usually, the composer has thought better of it: the music doesn’t hold up now, the composer’s style has changed a lot, it’s an early piece that just doesn’t seem good enough for public display…

All of Philip Glass’s early non-tonal music is unavailable now. I play(ed) a gospel-hued piano piece by Marc-Anthony Turnage (that I believe is excellent), a piece that was recast, and then withdrawn. Sometimes, pieces are revised, the new version meant to replace the old. Luciano Berio significantly reworked his piano sonata, as my student Francesco Tristano Schlimé learned shortly before going into the studio to record it! I still play original versions of études by Glass that he gave me, although, in his own performances, he’s changed the music (and re-numbered some of the pieces).

On programs, we see that some pianists offer the 1913 version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata, or that a conductor chooses Stravinsky’s 1945 version of music from the “Firebird.” (Some music was revised to recapture lost royalties in the New World.)

LPrecord.jpgGenerally, record labels have “deleted” sound recordings from their catalogs as a matter of commerce — items that don’t sell, or that run out and are not worth the additional investment necessary to “repress” (make more of) them.

The changing technologies of recorded sound have effectively withdrawn a lot of recorded material, as new formats eliminate older ones. But then come reissues. A lot of old recordings reappeared with the advent of CDs — as they did with the birth of LPs decades earlier. Huge boxed compilations of the recorded playing of Jascha Heifetz or Vladimir Horowitz. I questioned the reluctance of Jacob Lateiner to approve the re-issue on CD of his RCA recordings of music by Beethoven. “I use those as examples of how not to play,” he said. He opted to let the material remain unavailable — except to collectors who might seek out the old LPs.

Though we might grant today’s composers authority to withdraw or revise, with old music it seems to be different. Some composers had a clear sense of what was public and private. Brahms burned sketches and drafts. Beethoven’s designated “Opus 1” comes after several earlier (less worthy?) published pieces. Chopin left it to the untrustworthiness of others. Unable to destroy some manuscripts himself, he left them to be burned after he died. Of course, they were never put into the fire, Julian Fontana made an edition, and we have the Fantasy-Impromptu…


Some pianists prefer early versions of later-revised piano pieces by Robert Schumann. (“He went crazy you know…”) In contemporary performances of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, we frequently get a conflation of elements from different versions, including material certainly deleted by Schumann.

Online downloads and the digital sharing of recorded music seem to be mooting the issue of “deletions” in recorded music. Will everything be available in perpetuity? Maybe not, but I did find one of Lateiner’s Beethoven recordings on YouTube.

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  1. says

    And, Bruce, in the visual arts once an artist has let the product out onto the market, even if he/she changes their style dramatically later in life, they do not have the similar ability to track down and destroy the earlier art, unless they buy it back from the collector or museum. (Art experts may know examples of this from history; I’m unaware of any).

    Frankly, I wish composers were not able to withdraw works in this way. (I’m thinking of one piece in particular by Alvin Curran, “For Cornelius” which I think he withdrew…I loved that piece and think whatever reasons he had for pulling it are wrong. Composers are never the best last word on their own music!)

    There’s something kind of anti-humanistic about denying whole chapters of one’s creative output in that way. Every human’s life at any given moment is a direct or indirect result of virtually every choice made all along the way in that life. Shouldn’t artists, composers, reflect that immutable reality in their body of work? Who cares if it’s a bad piece, especially if the composer is now well-established? or who cares if it’s a somewhat derivative piece by comparison to the composer’s works from the later time when they “found their own voice.”? I’m pretty sure that in most cases, we would be the richer for it. I’d love to see Glass’ or Reich’s early serial student works…could we find even in those early works, clues as to the differing musical sympathies they would come to hold later? It’d be fun to look for those clues.

  2. says

    Thanks, Philip. Sometimes works of art are physically destroyed, of course. Leading to interesting speculations. We have photos of some missing art works — and they might come back. And then, you may know Ingarden’s discussion of what would happen if all the copies and manifestations of a piece by Chopin disappeared from the world…
    In the case of “For Cornelius,” I used to play it, I have a copy, and it’s more or less recorded in my brain. Other pianists made sound recordings of the piece.

  3. says

    All of Philip Glass’s early non-tonal music is unavailable now.

    That isn’t completely true. There are some of his early scores, like “Dreamy Kangaroo” and “The Haddock and the Mermaid” sitting around gathering dust in a few university libraries. You just need to know where to look.

    Some late 60’s songs, settings of Sandburg and Whitman, are even still available for purchase. The score for “Arioso” for string orchestra is still available.

    (A few recordings are even mentioned here, where I posted some of these same observations.)

    It’s really worlds apart from what his later music is like.

    You also mention Chopin. Years ago I picked up a book of sheet music called “Anson introduces Chopin”. It is a collection of some of the least-difficult of his compositions. (I’m a mediocre amateur pianist, so that is right about my level.) I only much later realized that many of these pieces are pretty obscure. It includes the a Polonaise that Anson claims to be Chopin’s first published piece. (He numbers it as B1, but Wikipedia calls it ‘KK IIa No. 1: Polonaise in G minor (1817)’) Even I can tell that isn’t a very mature work, but it is fascinating to be able to still hear it, as well as the rejected prelude (“Largo”, B109) and the “Cantabile” (B84) both of which I love playing.