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The Art of Composition

Ask a composer how he goes about writing music, and you are unlikely to get a satisfactory response. One reason for this, I suppose, is that there is rarely a simple answer. There are numerous approaches, and few composers pause to consider their own methods vary carefully.

One aspect of the subject that has always irritated me is the way in which admirers of successful composers are quick to suggest that their man (or woman!) was "inspired" by some event or personal experience. Whole compositions, they seem to imply, emerged in their complete form from the composer's head.. I am not trying to belittle creativity. But I am arguing that for most people - even famous composers - the old adage that genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration is truer than many people like to believe.

Writing music is not some mystical process. It is hard work - even for the experts.

Mozart was reputedly able to compose entire works in his head. But is this really credible? Mozart was a very tidy person, and very likely to have discarded any early drafts of his music.

Beethoven, on the other hand, hoarded his sketches. After he died, researchers found thousands of them, revealing that he laboured endlessly over his compositions.

Many people feel a particular sympathy for Beethoven because he became deaf in his old age and was therefore unable to hear the wonderful works he created. But as someone who has struggled to write music, I identify with him far more because of the effort he put into his life's work. While the flood of musical ideas that entered his brilliantly creative mind were seemingly unstoppable, Beethoven found it hard to compose.  

His sketches can be interpreted as an attempt to discipline those ideas, refine the rough edges and transform them into great art.

When he lived in Vienna, Beethoven did much of his composing while taking long walks, intending to enter ideas for musical themes into sketchbooks when he returned home. Worried that he might forget some of the ideas before he returned, he soon began carrying manuscript paper and a pencil in his pocket. Have any of you budding composers out there tried that? I know I have.

Much of what we know about Beethoven's process of composition comes from the work of researchers such as Nottebohm. Before him, the untidy ruminations the great composer left behind after his death were regarded as incomprehensible scribbles. Individual pages were also torn out the the sketchbooks and kept a souvenirs, enormously complicating efforts to make sense of them.

Beethoven's sketches vary in length from two or three bars to several pages. Often they show only a melodic outline, occasionally with hints of the harmony he thought appropriate. They are untidy, with numerous deletions, alterations and ink blots. There are even a few notes incorrectly positioned. Beethoven, it seems, actually made mistakes!

If the form of a work was to be different in some way, Beethoven usually sketched a synopsis outlining the main features. Thus, while the first movement of his Eroica Symphony was in the usual sonata form (and thus needed no synopsis), the finale's complex blend of variations, rondo and other elements required careful planning. Such plans usually involved references to key changes and instruments to be employed.

Lengthy drafts were often supplemented with shorter variant sketches, with some bars being reworked as many as 30 times. Curiously, some of the most intensive sketching was reserved things we would normally consider insignificant, such as the links between one section of the  music and the next.

But while many regard Beethoven as perhaps the finest composer who ever lived, it is clear that he was far from satisfied with his own music. For years he considered re-issuing his early works in heavily revised versions.  

Beethoven's acute attention to detail in his compositions meant that it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that his music's full richness was appreciated by musicologists. To me, however, the appeal lies in the incredible effort he put into his writing. It gives hope to all who try to follow in his footsteps.
 
 

 

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