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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.

    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.


    Latest Focus

    A Dream Fulfilled

    A poor but talented Indonesian E-flat tuba player who wants to study music in Singapore's prestigious Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), is very close to realising his dream.

    An impossible dream?

    When Joe Darion wrote the lyrics to the famous melody written by Mitch Leigh for the 1965 hit musical Man of La Mancha, I don't suppose he spent much time thinking about the ambitions of E flat tuba players.

    Are musicians more moody and prone to suicide than other people?


    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

     The life of J.S. Bach must have been very boring. 

    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.


    Concert Nerves

    In his book Random Reflections, the late English classical composer and pedagogue William Lovelock recalls an occasion where he was called upon to examine music candidates at a school.

    Hitting the Right Notes

    FOR a country of 240 million people, Indonesia’s Western music scene is surprisingly low key. There are only two well-established symphony orchestras, well-designed auditoriums are rare, and few Western-trained musicians can find enough work to make a decent living.

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