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Proms 2019

Music and mystery go hand in hand. Who was Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" and, come to think of it, how on earth did he die? We do know for sure that he wrote nine symphonies, but has he since contributed to a sense that composers are doomed immediately after scoring their ninths?

That's one curiosity we look at in the below list of enigmas taken from the music of this year's Proms, another of which is the actual enigma in a famous piece by Elgar.

Is Shostakovich's Symphony No 10 a coded portrait of Stalin?

The mystery: Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in his country's history, and was often persecuted by the Soviet authorities (one infamous article in Pravda attacked him for writing "muddle instead of music"). In March 1953, Stalin died, sending the USSR into confusion. Although some people were devastated about the death of the man they called 'Father', many Russians were secretly relieved, hopeful that a violent and oppressive period would finally end. Shostakovich was hard at work on his 10th Symphony that year, and - perhaps understandably - the mood of the moment seeped into his music. After the symphony's premiere that December, some quietly interpreted it as an act of musical revenge. Was it?

The debate: Much later, the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov claimed that Shostakovich had told him that the symphony was "all about Stalin and the Stalin years", revealing that the shrill, hard-driving second movement, entitled "scherzo" (joke), was essentially a portrait of the tyrant. But Volkov's reporting of Shostakovich's words is hotly disputed, and musicologists have found little evidence that the composer had an anti-Stalin scheme in mind from the beginning, not least because he started making sketches for the work long before the dictator's death. In a bigger sense, the symphony - one of the most complex and epic works Shostakovich ever wrote - is much more than simple satire. Nonetheless, according to Shostakovich scholar David Nice, the theory does ring true, particularly given the piece's jubilant use of the D-S-C-H motif (a kind of musical signature based on the letters of Shostakovich's name) at the symphony's end.

Solved? Not entirely. "Its unequivocal triumph - one of the few places where Shostakovich isn't being ambivalent - does suggest a personal story of triumph over dark times," says Nice, and that's about as much as we can conclude.

Prom 5: Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich

Is there such a thing as 'the curse of the ninth symphony'?

Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Dvořák, Bruckner - all of whom's ninth symphonies are being performed at the 2017 Proms
Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Dvořák, Bruckner - all of whom's ninth symphonies are being performed at the 2017 Proms

The mystery: Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Dvořák, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams: all composed nine symphonies but failed to complete a 10th. Is some kind of hex at work? Arnold Schoenberg seems to have believed so, declaring: "It seems the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away." Philip Glass was so anxious about the jinx that he completed his 10th symphony before premiering his ninth.

The debate: While it's true that both Beethoven and Vaughan Williams died having completed nine numbered symphonies, with every other composer in the list things are trickier - Bruckner abandoned his second symphony part-way through and renamed it Symphony No 0 (highly confusing), then died without finishing his ninth, meaning that he left just under 10 symphonies in total. Schubert's Symphony No 8 is technically unfinished (see below), while Mahler - who did seem to believe in some sort of curse - got partway through his 10th before expiring. Dvořák, meanwhile, managed to lose the score for his own Symphony No 1; it reappeared in 1923, meaning that his symphonies had to be renumbered to make the magic nine.

Solved? While it's probably true that composing nine major symphonies can be a lifetime's work - Schoenberg added that "those who have written a ninth stood too near to the hereafter" - there are so many counter-examples as to render the curse all but meaningless, and a huge amount depends on what you actually count as a symphony in the first place. Haydn wrote 101 symphonies, while Mozart composed at least 41. Far out in front is the Finnish composer Leif Segerstam, who is recorded as having composed 309, and is reportedly still going.

Prom 14: Ralph Williams and Holst's The Planets
Prom 21: Beethoven – Symphony No 9, 'Choral'
Prom 52: Beyond the Score®: Dvořák’s New World Symphony
Prom 64: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Daniele Gatti

Was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6 a 'suicide note'?

The mystery: In 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted his final symphony, the Pathétique, and died nine days later. Nothing fishy there, you'd assume, except the Russian composer wouldn't explain the meaning behind the tumultuous, profound and melancholic piece. His friend and fellow composer Rimsky-Korsakov asked and, "He replied that there was one, of course, but that he did not wish to announce it." Tchaikovsky also wrote to his nephew, to whom the piece is dedicated, that it "will remain a mystery to everyone - let them guess". After his death audiences listened for portent, some believing it foretold his own death - maybe by his own hand.

The debate: Tchaikovsky's death was recorded as a case of cholera. But, being gay in 19th century Russia, the composer led a tortured life, and people were bound to gossip. The 1954 Grove's music dictionary entry on him said: ''Several sensational accounts of the composer's end were circulated and received credence.'' By the 1980s, Grove's claimed that "suicide cannot be doubted". The entry's writer David Brown went on to support a theory that an aristocrat had discovered an affair between the composer and his nephew and threatened to ruin his career. "Two days later the composer was mortally ill, almost certainly from arsenic poisoning. The story that he died of cholera from drinking unboiled water is pure fabrication."

Solved? The theory is now generally dismissed as fabulist gossip. David Brown has since recanted. And in many accounts of the time, Tchaikovsky was in good spirits following that first performance of the work. All that said, the piece has an intriguing false ending. Make of that what you will.

Prom 17: Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

Did Stravinsky's Rite of Spring really cause a riot at its premiere?

The mystery: The premiere of Stravinsky's 1913 ballet has been immortalised as all of Parisian high society throwing punches and projectiles. But has the violence been exaggerated over the years in order to signify a modernist eruption not unlike the spectacle on stage?

Debate: Ivan Hewett, in an article and radio show for the BBC, outlines how the press reported a rowdy, noisy and divided crowd. But whether there was serious violence seems to depend on which eyewitness account you chose to believe. Some suggested a considerable number of arrests were made; others claimed that a police presence was usual for concerts of the time "and they just witnessed the scene without doing much". Stravinsky, it's worth remembering, was a star of the Parisian scene, his earlier ballet Petrushka having been rapturously received. Was it actually Vaslav Nijinsky's primitivist and sexualised choreography that was shocking to the crowd, more so than Stravinsky's thunderous score? And how long did the trouble last? Dancer Lydia Sokolova claimed many years later that, "As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began," yet the the piece was played to the end and there was an ovation, at least from some of the crowd.

Solved? It was certainly noisy, but the police file from the 29 May 1913 is missing, so we'll never know for sure about the rumoured arrests.

Prom 28: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

[WATCH] Prom 28: Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Thomas Adès (excerpt)

What is the enigma in Elgar's Enigma Variations?

The mystery: Between 1898 and 1899 English composer Edward Elgar wrote his Enigma Variations - 14 different variations on an original musical theme, which he called Enigma. The 14 variations each have named inspirations and dedicatees, ranging from Elgar's publisher (the famous Nimrod variation is wordplay on the name Jäger, the German for hunter) to a friend's dog. The only theme without a dedication is the main theme. Elgar wrote: "The Enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed." He also said, "Over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played," adding to the intrigue. Was there also an invisible melody that, if uncovered, would harmonise with the original theme and its variations?

The debate: Regarding the hidden melody, famous musicians and critics including Yehudi Menuhin and Jerrold Northrop Moore have weighed in, suggesting famous tunes that could fit the bill, including Rule Britannia, Auld Lang Syne and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. But no one has looked into the mystery more intently than American violin teacher Bob Padgett, who, the New Republic reported, believes it's a Lutheran hymn from the 16th century, Ein feste Burg.

As to the "dark saying", interest has focussed on incidents and people in the composer's personal life that might have been unmentionable at the time. In a 2000 article, a musicologist posited that Elgar was secretly gay. But Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy, who died in 2014, seemed to bring much more evidence to bear on his theory that Elgar may have met a young Welsh actress and dancer, Dora Nelson, while he was composing the piece and later had a lovechild with her, called Pearl. As reported by The Arts Desk in 2011, Kennedy received a letter from National Gallery director Sir Kenneth Clark in 1968 alleging that Dora had come to work for him as a cook. Clark's circle, including the composer William Walton, had all taken it for granted that this woman's then-adult daughter was Elgar's child. Clark also said had felt no objection to being the signatory on a passport which named her Elgar. And so, the big question: was secret love Elgar's fabled "dark saying"?

Solved? Many think Elgar, when he wrote about including an unplayed theme in the work, was simply having people on. And regarding the "dark saying", there has yet to be a substantiating piece of evidence connecting Elgar to his supposed love child.

Prom 32: Britten, Brian Elias, Purcell and Elgar

[LISTEN] Prom 32: Elgar, Enigma Variations, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Henry Waddington (excerpt)

Why was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony unfinished?

The mystery: Why Schubert never completed his B Minor Symphony is one of music's great mysteries. When it was first performed, long after he died aged 31 in 1828, audiences recognised it as representing a new, fascinating direction for the Austrian composer, and for music itself. It wasn't as if he ran out of time - he lived for six years after starting it and worked on two more symphonies.

The debate: The piece, as we know it, exists in sketches given to Schubert's friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner: two fully orchestrated movements and a short score skeleton of a third, of which 20 bars have been orchestrated. Some believe that, seeing as Schubert began the symphony just before he was diagnosed with syphilis, it represented a traumatic time in his life, which he didn't wish to return to. Others, like conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, believe that he had already said everything he needed to say in the piece, and began composing the third movement before realising it was ultimately unnecessary. And to complicate matters further, there's even a school of thought that Schubert wrote music for the fourth movement, but cannibalised it for his incidental music to the play Rosamunde.

Solved? Far from it. But complete or not, his Unfinished Symphony is regarded as one of the composer's finest works, and one of the most unusual symphonies to have been written.

Prom 36: Schubert and Mahler

[LISTEN] Prom 36: Franz Schubert, Symphony No 8 in B minor 'Unfinished', BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (excerpt)

Are there secret Christian symbols hidden in the score of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier?

The mystery: The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of the most famous works for keyboard by J.S. Bach, a monumental sequence designed to show off the range and variety of the instrument - 48 pieces in total spread over two separate books, covering all 24 minor and major keys and adding up to nearly four hours of music. But some think it's more than that, and that a complex numerological-cum-religious system underpins the entire work.

The debate: Although Bach was undoubtedly inspired by the advent of keyboards that could play in every key without needing to be retuned, The Well-Tempered Clavier is not quite what it seems. The composer recycled earlier music and borrowed ideas from a number of places, some of which were, like the overwhelming majority of music Bach wrote, religious. Some keen-eyed analysts have claimed that certain pieces in the sequence, notably the fugue in C-sharp minor in Book 1, contain symbolic references to Christ's death on the cross (sections of it sound a little like the Mass in B Minor), while other parts quote hymn tunes or contain number patterns that seem to have religious significance. Plus, Bach's manuscript of Book 1 is signed "S.D.G.", which stands for "Soli Deo Gloria" (Glory to God Alone), his customary sign-off.

Solved? Genuinely difficult to say. This most ingenious of composers was certainly obsessed by numbers and symbols, particularly in his late work - numerous pieces turn the letters B-A-C-H into a musical motif (including some in The Well-Tempered Clavier), and other pieces such as The Art of Fugue rely on complex mathematical sequences that scholars have spent years attempting to unravel. Equally, Bach seems to have been a fervent Lutheran, much of whose life was spent writing church music. So it's entirely possible, and equally possible that we'll never get to the bottom of the puzzles in Bach's music. Which is rather wonderful, when you think about it.

Prom 73: Sir András Schiff performs Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier

[WATCH] Prom 73: J. S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, performed by Sir András Schif (excerpt)

Are Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn actually variations on a theme by Haydn?

The mystery: In August 1873, Johannes Brahms and his close friend Clara Schumann - pianist, composer and wife of Robert - premiered a new piece for two pianos - a set of eight variations on a melody by the classical composer Haydn. Brahms's way of paying tribute to one of his heroes and showing off his knowledge of historic musical styles, the piece was so successful that later that year Brahms turned it into a bells-and-whistles showpiece for full orchestra. Only one issue: the tune might have actually been composed by someone else. Oops.

The debate: Sometimes known as the St Anthony Chorale, the melody Brahms was working with is a serene yet stirring hymn tune - very hummable, and not dissimilar to other Haydn hymns (one of his best is the German national anthem). But although Haydn did use this very melody in a piece for wind instruments - Brahms did his homework - subsequent research suggests that it was in fact written by one of the great man's students, possibly an otherwise forgotten composer named Ignace Pleyel. So technically Variations on a Theme by Haydn should be re-titled Variations on a Theme that Haydn Stole from Somebody Else.

Solved? Pretty conclusively. But the piece is still great. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Music: "There seems no good reason to discard this title for a musicological nicety."

Prom 74: Vienna Philharmonic – Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven

[LISTEN] Prom 74: Brahms's Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (excerpt)

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