14 February 2020

The Nonsense Composers Write

This week I seem to have been upsetting composers, but that is neither surprising nor even unusual; composers should be fiercely possessive of their art and leap to its defence in the face of any negative criticism real or implied.  However, the offence has been caused not by my words about their music, but by my words about their words.  In short, I have come across that familiar situation where a composer has tried to explain or justify his music and has, so far as I am concerned, failed dismally.

I better be careful not to name names, but on Thursday a letter reached me from a Russian composer now resident in Switzerland whose music I had encountered for the first time when I reviewed a newly-issued CD of his recent works.  I have to say I was bowled over and loved every second.  My overwhelming impression, however (and I certainly did not intend this as a negative criticism) was that it was rooted in the sound world and musical idioms of the late 19th/early 20th century.  I commented that if Rachmaninov had been castigated in his life time for seeming to be backward looking, how would those narrow-minded critics react to music written in 2015 which inhabited a sound world which would have been familiar to listeners a century ago.  My point was that we have, critically moved on, and we now assess a work on its own merits, not on any misguided belief that music written today should sound difficult for the sake of sounding difficult. 

Here is what the composer wrote to me in response to that;
“You write that my Fourth Symphony ‘belongs firmly to the late 19th century sound world’ and ‘seems almost more backward-facing than Rachmaninov’.  But you are wrong!  The music has many characteristics that can only be heard in works from the twentieth century”, and he goes on to suggest that his music owes much to Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-Lieder, “early Berg and early Webern”.  I’m not sure that allying your music to the pre-serial days of the so-called Second Viennese School composers at the dawn of the last century is a convincing way of telling me that this music of the 21st century is NOT backward-looking.   On top of that, on the basis that the work is titled Symphony no.4 in G minor I observed that it was “firmly rooted in tonality”.  Yet the composer objects to this too; “the polytonal and atonal segments…you seem unable to hear”.  Whether I heard them or not does not alter the composer’s clear statement of tonality in the title.  If he wanted it to be seen as “polytonal and atonal”, why did he unequivocally state that it was in G minor?

In short, here is a composer who writes wonderful music, but would do well to keep his thoughts to himself when it comes to words; I am now not sure whether he really understands that the musical world has moved on since 1914.

The day before I received this letter, I had been taken out to dinner by another composer who told me that a third composer, a premiere of whose I had attended and reviewed earlier in the week, was baying for my blood.  One of that composer’s acolytes (I assume) has since written an anonymous message to me suggesting that my future existence on earth is by no means guaranteed.  It seems the fact that I was not ecstatic about the new work did not cause so much offence as the fact that I appeared to assume it was something it was not.  From the title of the work, as well as from the composer’s own fulsome programme notes oozing with lyrical prose and evocative imagery, I suggested in my review that the sound of the music did not live up to the expectations.  Frankly, there was just about nothing in the composer’s description of his music which related to what the music actually sounded like, and while I accept that everything he suggested was there in the composing process, it had been so enveloped within a desire to emphasise the technique of writing music, that to the casual listener, the description and the reality were two very different things.  “What was he expecting?”, is a phrase which the composer apparently uttered after having read my review. 
I am happy to answer him.  If you tell us that the piece evokes images of a rustic scene, that it incorporates a couple of famous folk melodies, and that the music represents a very picturesque image, then that is what I expect to hear.  The fact that what I got was a lot of random sounds, a chaotic assemblage of musical and extra-musical effects and an incoherent progression from great volume to near silence, means that, whether I liked what I heard or not, it certainly did not live up to the false expectations set up in the composer’s own words.  How much better this would have been if we could have assessed the work on its own merits, unencumbered by preconceptions set in progress by the composer’s pre-performance words. 

In both these cases, the composers have written music which may or may not have great merit and which I may or may not have enjoyed on its own terms, but have undermined that by trying to verbalise their intentions.  Whatever happened to the old dictum of composers; once the music is in the public domain, you no longer have any control over it?

I raised this very point with my composer dining-companion and found that this was by no means an accepted dictum among today’s composers.  Surely, I was told, the composer knows better than anyone else what the music is all about.  Yes, that is true at the creative stage, but once it is in the hands of the performers and the ears of the listeners, it takes on a life of its own.  E T A Hoffmann told us that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was all about fate; Beethoven told us that it was all about the singing of birds.  Most of us accept Hoffmann’s interpretation and dismiss Beethoven’s.  And were we to accept Beethoven at his word, and accept no other interpretation of that famous four note motiv, I am not sure the Fifth Symphony would have gone on to achieve such immense popularity.  Composers have to learn to let go and let us interpret and respond to their music on our own personal terms.  They have given us the raw material to which we attach our own personal and emotional baggage; many might suggest that this is the very purpose of music today.

“We should dispense with programme notes altogether”, my dining companion suggested.  The answer to that is a resounding NO.  We need programme notes to guide us through the music, to point us in a suggested direction of listening (and thereby unravelling what can sometimes be a confusing array of sounds) and to give some context to what we hear, but possibly the composer is the last person who should do that being, as they are, too close to their own creation  - the same concept as used to prevent close relatives from testifying against each other in a court of law.  (Programme notes also exist to provide a tangible and physical souvenir of the occasion.  When the music has stopped sounding in our ears, the programme notes can help it continue sounding in our memories.)  There is an art to all this while avoiding the danger of setting up false expectations in the listener’s mind; and it’s an art few composers seem to possess.  By all means tell us why you wrote it, when you wrote and what your dog was doing while you were writing it, but please don’t tell us how to listen to it.  Our ears are not the same as yours, and we need to approach your music on our own terms and in our own way.

Back in the early 1970s I was the editor of the programme book for the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music.  As publication day dawned I had still not received any word about a new commission from a certain well-known German-born Jewish American naturalised composer.  I wrote to him time and time again, asking for some basic information so that I could mould it into a coherent programme note, but he insisted he was going to write his own note for publication.  He was, he reminded me, famous as a communicator and he felt he knew his music better than anyone else and could describe it more precisely.  On the very morning the copy was due to go off to the printers, his note arrived.  I remember it vividly; “This work may be long or short, loud or soft, it has rhythm and melody and is scored for piano, violin and possibly some other instruments”.  Such perceptive writing from a composer puts the carefully-chosen words of the professional programme-note writer to shame!

1 comment:

  1. I find it very interesting when outstanding figures in one field have also produced work in another field. Example - Bernard Shaw's or Schumann's prose on music, a recording of Einstein playing the violin (if only !), paintings by Mendelssohn or Gershwin, a novel by Stephen Hough, and further afield paintings by Churchill or travel writings by Lord Curzon. It doesn't have to be great, to be interesting, it just has to offer a new insight into a great mind.

    Your point on the role of programme notes is well made. And I would be interested to know whether composers feel the same. Do they write music with the intention that the entirety of what they have to say is within the work? Or do they welcome their listeners being guided through the music with the aid of well written programme notes by someone else, or don’t they care? How do they think about how their music would be seen in the future ? (I remember a cartoon showing Mozart’s ghost reacting to his music’s modern popularity, and commenting “sorry, who is this Köchel person”).

    I have encountered your programme notes a few times over the years, and I always find them informative – like your blog, and they have often enhanced the experience of a good concert. Thank you for that. But I don’t think programme notes generally help me understand what the composer was trying to say any better. In fact, perhaps by presenting me with one person’s thought-out observations they have prevented me from forming my own. What do you think a composer would want the audience to read or think about while listening to their music ? Have you ever asked them ? Do they have a view of the wider experience that they want their audience to have ? I have no idea of the answer, and for composers other than the living we can never know, unless their view has already been noted.

    There is something attractive about trying to get inside of a composer’s mind. As the interest in Mozarts published letters, or Beethoven’s conversation notebooks, etc etc, would attest. Even if it is sometimes nonsense. Your throw-away comment that Beethoven thought (or at least claimed) his 5th symphony was about the singing of birds is fascinating. It opens up avenues of thought about what Beethoven might have heard in common sounds, or how he chose to represent them, or how he might have had difficulty explaining his compositions, or how he might have deliberately given facetious explanations. To me, what a composer choses to tell others about his compositions is potentially very interesting – either because it gives new insights, or because it appears to be contradicted by the music itself. Having seen great architects describe the buildings of others, scientists speak of the discoveries of others, and great modern writers comment on their respect (or otherwise) for literature of their forebears, I think it is fair to say that genius sees many things and make connections that others (such as myself) don’t. And there is something inspirational about trying to understand those connections.

    What I have said above is probably undermined by many examples of actors, artists, writers and so on deciding to share their views on politics, public policy, or economics – while indeed some seem unable even to grasp normal human behaviour. Perhaps I am falling into the same trap as their awestruck admirers: celebrity endorsement. A genius in one area can be completely adrift in others. Clearly there are bounds to genius, wisdom and experience. But, while I would not ask Schubert or Beethoven for financial advice, I would love to hear what each thought of is own music, what he was trying to express, what sounds he was using and why. And given the choice between possible nonsense from the composer, or plausible insights from a third party, however eloquent, I would go for the former. Perhaps best of all would be both, though I guess concert budgets these days barely even cover the cost of one set of properly written programme notes, let alone two contrasting and contradicting views.

    J Anderson

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