“Astounding!… He had simply written down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall." Antonio Salieri on Mozart’s musical manuscripts in Milos Foreman’s cinematic adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus. These leaves for an unfinished Allegro in G for piano sold at £280,000 at Sotheby’s on May 22.

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This was the manuscript of an unfinished Allegro in G for piano and four hands, comprising just 98 bars in all. At Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) on May 22 it sold for £280,000.

Piano compositions for four hands were once an enormously popular form where domestic music-making was concerned (see also the Strauss example noted below) and Mozart had composed such pieces from an early age. The most famous is the Sonata in F Major of 1786, which may have been written for Theresa von Trattner, the dedicatee of one of Mozart’s finer solo piano works, the Piano Sonata in C Minor*.

Acquired at a 1989 sale (also at Sotheby’s) for £38,000, it was the star lot of the separately catalogued Helmut Nanz family collection, which raised a little over £900,000 on 29 of 45 lots offered.

Father figures in letter form

Sold for £65,000 was a rare letter in the hand of Mozart’s father, Leopold. Addressed to the Viennese music publisher Artaria in 1785, it concerns an order for a dozen copies of his own treatise on violin playing, first published in 1756. He also asks that an enclosed letter be passed on to his son.

Other notable letters in the collection included one, written in the summer of 1820, in which Beethoven seems to be considering the purchase of a property in the market town of Mödling, near Vienna, where he was accustomed to spend part of each summer. At the time the letter was sent he was working on his Missa Solemnis.

The letter sold at £16,000, but an autograph sketchleaf for part of the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C, Op.59 No.3 that had opened the sale was one of the unsold lots – bought in against an estimate of £150,000-200,000.

A Chopin letter of 1845 was written (in French) to Lady Belhaven of Wishaw House, whom he was to visit while travelling in Scotland with his pupil Jane Stirling.

The composer was in poor health after the London concert season and Stirling’s itinerary seems to have been demanding, something which may have coloured his view of this particular stay.

Writing later to his close friend Albert Gryzmala, he explains: “One day, after I had played for her [Lady Belhaven], and other Scottish ladies had sung various songs, they brought out a kind of accordion, and she, with the utmost gravity, began to play the most atrocious tunes on it. But what can you expect? Every creature here seems to me to have a screw loose.” It sold at £22,000.

Bid to £90,000 apiece were Richard Strauss’ own transcription for piano and four hands of one of his more celebrated orchestral works, the first of his symphonic fantasies, Aus Italien of 1889, and a lot presenting two early autograph working drafts for parts of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, dated to 1909.

Sold at £120,000 was a complete autograph vocal score for Maurice Ravel’s 1902 cantata, Alcyone. A work for three voices and orchestra, this was his unsuccessful entry for the 1902 Prix de Rome.

The principal melodic idea, however, had been based on a theme from an earlier string quartet by Debussy, and this, Roger Nichols wrote in his 2011 book on the composer, “…can hardly have done Ravel any favours with the jury, especially given Debussy’s standing as a dangerous revolutionary”.

A second selection

The second Sotheby’s music sale of the day was one in which barely half of the 75 lots found buyers, though manuscripts by Brahms and Bruch were the only highly estimated failures.

Bid to £65,000 was a previously unrecorded, 1895 autograph manuscript of two songs for soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss, Das Rosenband and Liebeshymnus.

Bidding reached £60,000 for George Gershwin’s autograph first draft of the song A Woman is a Sometime Thing from the opening scene of Porgy and Bess.

It was sent to auction by a descendant of Alexander Smallens, who conducted the first performances of Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece in Boston and New York and made the first recordings. The manuscript had been given to Smallens by the composer’s brother and lyricist, Ira Gershwin.

*In 1990, working manuscripts for Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C-minor and a Fantasia for Piano in C Minor were offered as a single lot in the same rooms and sold for £880,000.