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When I heard that Harper Lee planned to publish a second novel, I got to thinking about whether or not artists should have a say in what happens to their unpublished works after they die. Harper Lee is still with us, of course, but how “with us” she may be is a matter of some dispute: she suffered a stoke in 2007, and has not been the same since.
I first pondered this question years ago when I read that Frédéric Chopin had requested on his deathbed that his unpublished manuscripts be burned. His mother and his sisters ultimately declined to honor this request, and went on to publish 23 of his piano works. Among them is one of his most famous compositions, the Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor.
My instinct is to honor the artist’s wishes. While the Fantasie-Impomptu certainly seems like a fully realized work, only the composer can know if a work is actually complete. Another good example is Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which he was composing when he died in 1911. With the exception of the Adagio — which was almost certainly completed by the composer — conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, and Claudio Abbado refused to perform what was left of the work. Mahler was a meticulous composer, often making adjustments to his symphonies long after their premier. For this reason, it is a fairly safe assumption that he would not have wanted any part of the 10th Symphony to be performed. The same applies to “Blumine,” the movement Mahler dropped after the premier of his First symphony.
There are scores of examples of much loved posthumous works in music and literature that we would never know had the artist’s wishes been honored. For me the question is unresolved. Should artists’ wishes be honored after they die?