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Long-Lost Mendelssohn Composition to be Played in Texas

Saturday, a musical piece by 19th century German composer Felix Mendelssohn will be played for the first time in more than 175 years at a concert in central Texas. This 21st century Mendelssohn premiere is the result of a local professor's effort to track down the score in Russia.

The last time anyone heard Felix Mendelssohn's Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber's 'Preziosa' was in London, on May the second, 1833. It is one of the more than 200 pieces composed by Mendelssohn that was never published and then disappeared.

The musical detective who found it and several other pieces by the German composer is Michael Cooper, an associate professor of music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas just north of the state capital, Austin.

"I found a cross reference in an old auction catalogue to the holdings of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and from that cross reference it was clear to me that there was a piece for two pianos with orchestra that had at some point been in the possession of the St. Petersburg Conservatory," he said.

Cooper began contacting the Russian conservatory in 1997, but his entreaties were at first ignored. He says progress came in the form of dismissive letters that might have discouraged a less determined investigator.

"As things warmed a little bit in former Soviet relations with the western world, I started getting letters that were sort of bland denials or [that said] 'We will consider this in due course.' And I just persisted," he said.

Eventually, in 2003, the St. Petersburg Conservatory agreed to give him digital scans of the composition and various sheets with scribbled notes for the piano parts.

Cooper and colleagues then went to work reassembling the piece from the notes, including a separate finale composed by Mendelssohn's friend Ignaz Moscheles. Both versions will be performed by the Austin Civic Orchestra at the concert on Southwestern University's campus Saturday and people in the audience will be asked to judge which version they like best.

Cooper says he has received e-mails and phone messages from around the United States and other parts of the world enquiring about the concert.

COOPER: "I think the furthest one I got was from Paris."
FLAKUS: "What did they say?"
COOPER: "They wanted to know where the concert was and how much the tickets cost."
FLAKUS: "Do you expect to see someone from Paris show up?"
COOPER: "I would kind of be surprised at that, but I would be delighted."

Part of the reason so many of Mendelssohn's musical compositions are hard to find is that the composer was notoriously reluctant to publish, but there is another reason.

His works were denigrated by anti-Semitic critics after the composer's death in 1847 and later banned altogether by the Nazis. Mendelssohn was from a prominent Jewish family that converted to Christianity, but the Nazis as well as the bigots that preceded them condemned anyone with even a hint of Jewish heritage.

Only about 160 of the more than 400 pieces composed by Mendelssohn can be found today in published form, compelling music detectives to continue their searches.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn's birth and Michael Cooper and many other musical scholars hope to see his works given the attention they deserve through events like the concert Saturday here in Texas.