Misusing Manuscripts of Music and Bible

Misusing Manuscripts of Music and Bible December 18, 2016

Talking about Handel’s Messiah in the chamber chat on December 12th with Maestro Matthew Kramer, the question of the “authentic version” of Messiah came up. It was interesting to note how similar the issues are that connect music and Biblical studies when one approaches them by way of questions about manuscripts.

Manuscripts in both areas have turned up time and again in unexpected places, often in the act of being destroyed, damaged, and misused in a variety of ways – to wrap fish, or light fires.

In both cases, different versions exist and it is debatable whether it makes sense to speak of an “original” text.

But on the other hand, in both cases, people will enjoy a version without looking at footnotes or commentary, and may be liable to complain when attempts at getting closer to the earliest and most authentic version lead to changes from the form they are used to.

And in both cases, we are liable to forget that letters were delivered by commissioned individuals, and performances overseen by composers, and so certain things could be left unwritten since posterity was not yet in view.

What other similarities are there that you can think of, that connect music and biblical studies?


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    A lot of music pieces are enjoyed by people without any reference to author’s intent, surrounding culture, or any other context or circumstances that might have bearing on how we “interpret” the piece.

    There are also authorship disputes.

    • The New York Times had an article just today about the disputed authenticity of a manuscript purportedly from Beethoven.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        And the stories about Mozart and Salieri give the Edison/Tesla stories a run for their money.

  • Sixtus

    As with the earliest days of the Bible, there are debates as to what should be admitted to each composer’s canon, regardless of the manuscript history. Fans of Mozart will be puzzled that the canonical “last 6 symphonies” are numbered 35-41. That’s because No.37 is now known to be by Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous Franz Joseph Haydn (of Surprise Symphony and The Creation fame). Mozart only wrote the slow introduction to No37.

    As Wikipedia puts it, my additions in []:
    Modern commentators find it difficult to comprehend how the editors of the [19th century] Breitkopf edition of Mozart could have considered the three movements of the G major Symphony [No37] as the immediate successor of the ‘Linz’ Symphony [No36]; the infinitely simpler and more archaic art of the Salzburg master [M Haydn] offers such a contrast that one might well suppose this symphony to date much earlier than 1783 if Mozart had been the one to write it.

    To my ears (from youth surrounded by easily available audible examples of the vast body of echt-Mozart recordings), there’s no way that the bulk of No.37 sounds anything like even early Mozart. Just as nowadays the style and content many of the Pauline epistles rule them out as actually being written by Paul.

    • This is also a fantastic point of similarity – recognizing authenticity is something that is more a matter of detailed familiarity with an author or composer’s work than anything else.