The Composer Looks at Himself

The Composer Looks at Himself

In one of her short stories*, Isak Dinesen has her protagonist, a writer, explain that
“All works of art are beautiful and perfect. And all of them are, at one and the same time, hideous, ludicrous, complete failures. At the moment when I begin a book it is always lovely. I look at it, and I see that it is good. While I am at the first chapter of it it is so well balanced, there is such sweet agreement between the various parts, as to make its entirety a marvelous harmony and generally, at that time, the last chapter of the book is the finest of all. But it is also, from the very moment it is begun, followed by a horrible shadow, a loathsome, sickening deformity, which all the same is like it, and does at times — yes, does often — change places with it, so that I myself will not recognize my work, but will shrink from it, like the farm wife from the changeling in her cradle, and cross myself at the idea that I have ever held it to be my own flesh and bone. Yes, in short and in truth, every work of art is both the idealization and the perversion, the caricature of itself. And the public has power to make it, for good or evil, the one or the other. When the heart or the public is moved and shaken by it, so that with tears of contrition and pride they acclaim it as a masterpiece, it becomes that masterpiece which I did myself at first see. And when they denounce it as insipid and worthless, it becomes worthless. But when they will not look at it at all — voilà , as they say in this town [Paris] — it does not exist. In vain I shall cry to them: ‘Do you see nothing there?’ They will answer me quite correctly: ‘Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.’”
I imagine that many composers have similarly ambivalent feelings about their music during the process of creation and after. Often I have had the experience of hearing a work of my own, some time after its composition, and wondering by what process it came about, how it took the shape it did, although while writing it there was no obscurity in my mind at all. In looking backward through a lifetime of composing — now well over fifty years — I can usually discern a more or less direct line of evolution, each work following more or less reasonably upon the heels of its predecessor. But if individual works are isolated from the chronological succession, apparent disparities often appear. Why, one wonders, did this particular direction not prevail? Why did that apparently insignificant gesture become so prominent in the works that followed? By what sifting process did the music produced in 1970 evolve from that of 1950, or 1930?

These are questions which the composer himself may have trouble in answering. Composers who have formulated some sort of “system” of composition no doubt find it easier to talk about their music, to observe it dispassionately as if it were the work of a stranger. They can tell you, clearly and succinctly, not only how but why everything that happens in the music, every gesture, every nuance, came about, justifying each point according to an a priori commitment, countering query or criticism with a demonstration of how the events conform to and realize the intention.

I am not that kind of composer. For me, a part — and often a large part — of the process is subjective; if I knew what “inspiration” is I might be persuaded to use that maligned word. I have never been able, nor have I wished, to plot an entire composition, down to fine details, without knowing in advance what musical materials are to be entrusted with the realization of that plan. I rarely devise secondary musical ideas before the place in the composition where they are needed, preferring to let them arise from the particular circumstance the music up to that point has posed. On the other hand, I persist in believing that the most satisfying music is that which, no matter how achieved, conveys a sense of inevitability, of having had to be written in the shape eventually attained.

We all know music in which we should not wish to change a note. To have written such a work must give the most extreme satisfaction a composer is ever to experience. Yet even in such a work, the realistic view would suggest that numerous alternate solutions might have been provided for the problems set, with no loss in the impression of “inevitability.” The B-minor Mass, great monument that it is, Bach assembled in large part from pieces previously used for other purposes. He might certainly have made different choices here and there, with no damage to the total image. Similarly the last string quartets of Beethoven, labored over in the sketch books, took shapes which we accept as final, inevitable, but who is to say that further modification, further revision, would have destroyed the uniquely unified impression each of these makes?

I do not profess to have achieved more than an approximate “inevitability” in anything I have written, though I have seldom or never experienced the trauma that Dinesen’s Charlie Despard describes so vividly in reaction to the euphoria of the creative process. Some works of mine give me greater pleasure than others. I enjoy hearing performances of them, but if they are played too frequently I tire of them as I do of any other composer’s music. When they are badly played I discount the inadequacies so far as possible; when they are superbly done, I credit the performance equally with the composition. I have rarely or never modified a score in reaction to critical response.

Perhaps I should preface what further I want to say about my music with a little stage setting. I grew up in a small town in central New York, studying piano from the age of nine or so, and almost immediately adding a class in theory and smatterings of music history and instrumentation. Within a few months I had begun to compose — songs and small piano pieces modeled on those I had studied. This went on until I went to college, majoring first in organ, and then changing to composition. My principal teacher was William H. Berwald, a German composer of Strauss’s generation though far less adventurous. (Later on I had a few lessons with Ernest Bloch at the University of California.)

Berwald encouraged me to explore in many directions, but his instruction was far too permissive and I did not acquire until much later the disciplines which I should expect my own students to absorb. Experience of contemporary music was slight: you must remember that at that time radio was in its infancy, records purveyed mostly the standard repertory — in cut versions — and television and magnetic tape were still far in the future. In the last sessions of a music history class I encountered a few works of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg — the milder works — and was especially seized by the 2nd String Quartet of Bartók, borrowing the score and the records for intensive study. (This, by the way, was the only major work of Bartók’s that I heard until 1944, with the first broadcast of the Concerto for Orchestra.)  The music that I wrote in the twenties and thirties was mainly in smaller forms and media. Opportunities for performance were few, and in the midst of the Great Depression not many were willing to take a chance on programming new music. I had a program at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, my first really professional exposure; all the works performed have long since been withdrawn.

In 1937 I left New York state and taught successively in South Dakota and Illinois, followed that by a hitch in the Navy, and, having been stationed in California, have been here ever since, with occasional visiting appointments at Yale, Cincinnati, Washington, and Williams College.

The stretch in the Navy provided not only time for composition, but opportunity for performance, and from that time on my catalogue grew rapidly. In San Francisco there were performances of my 2nd Piano Trio and First Symphony (which I conducted with the San Francisco Symphony), and these led to my writing the Quintet for flute, piano, and strings for the San Francisco Music Lovers Society. All three of these, enthusiastically reviewed by the critic Alfred Frankenstein, mark the beginning of the list of works I now acknowledge; more than a hundred earlier works have been withdrawn.

There are now a dozen orchestral works or more, numerous chamber works, a large number of choral works (including several large-scale ones with orchestra), many keyboard pieces, and nearly a hundred songs. For the theater, only one work, incidental music for Sheridan’s Rivals; for the band, only two works, both scored by others .
In the overview, certain points tend to stand out. First of all, in the matter of form: use of closed forms, frequently developmental, with little attention to variation forms or fugue. Music once written is rarely repeated unchanged, even in recapitulations. Second, in the matter or texture: largely contrapuntal, but with frequent homophonic passages. Third: Harmonic style: freely chromatic but tonally oriented, conveying a sense of clear-cut tonality most of the time; the chromaticism is often attained through the application of mixed modality, all the semitones being available through superposition of several modes (Phrygian 2nd, Lydian 4th, Mixolydian 7th, etc.).  There is some use of symmetrical (arbitrary) scales also. Earlier melody is likely to be close-coupled, composed of small intervals, and symmetrically balanced; later melody is wide-ranging (e.g., Clarinet Concerto, Horn Sonata), and asymmetrically balanced. (The stimulus to asymmetry came, I think, from Haydn.) Of whatever contour, melodies usually suggest diatonicism even though all 12 notes may be present over a relatively small space.
In writing for instruments I have always made an effort to provide music idiomatic to the instrument, though not always easy; I should not, however, feel confined to conventionalities of instrumental technique. I do not (as did Hindemith) believe in treating the trumpet, the English horn, and the viola as instruments of similar capabilities, and in scoring for the orchestra I prefer to treat the large ensemble as made up of small chamber groups except in passages that demand mass –in which case, naturally, I double. Parenthetically I may say that I have never played a string, wind, or percussion instrument.
I came to vocal writing with an extensive experience in vocal accompanying and choral singing and directing; I feel that this has been extremely beneficial with regard to my choral works and songs. I came to believe that the main reason for setting a text to music must be a conviction that music can somehow enhance the effectiveness, more specifically the meaning, of the text. For that reason most of my vocal lines are approximations, exaggerated of course, of spoken inflection, so that there is never a problem in projecting words. I do not hold with the willful fragmentation of words for musical purposes, believing that if the goal is incomprehensibility it could be more appropriately attained with nonsense syllables devised for the occasion.
People seem to be especially interested in tracing “influences” of one composer on another. In my case, the obvious reference is Béla Bartók, since it is common knowledge that I made an exhaustive study of his music in preparation for the book I wrote. And there are strong resemblances, I acknowledge, in such aspects as rhythm, interval structure, and attitudes toward form. But I have to point out that, as I mentioned earlier, until 1944 I knew only one work of Bartók’s well, and that much of my music written before that time is as strongly “Bartókian” as any since.

I do believe that this came not from knowing the 2nd String Quartet, but from a similarity of viewpoint regarding the materials of music despite great differences in nationality, background, and training. Almost the only common link is the relatively unimportant fact that my teacher, Berwald, and Bartók’s, Koessler, were both students of Gustav Rheinberger.

Recognizing the priority of Bartók’s claims to his personal style, since I have become intimately acquainted with his music I have tended to avoid the quasi-Bartókian solution when it suggests itself, looking in other directions. But I do not hesitate to acknowledge adherence to the same axis.
As for the influences I readily admit, though few have ever identified them, I should list Brahms, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Mozart, and J.S. Bach, roughly in that order. I think my ideas of thematic treatment are often Brahmsian, and textures often suggest that composer. From Hindemith I acquired a feeling for polyphony and a kind of motoriness in fast movements (corroborated also in Prokofiev); the latter contributed to the openness of many passages and a kind of neoclassical clarity, which led me to Mozart. Bach’s contribution goes without saying.

Minor acquisitions along the way may be traced to Ravel (the somewhat “Bulgarian” rhythms of the Piano Trio, not, I emphasize, from Bartók), Schoenberg (freely chromatic melody, with wide leaps), and probably others. In my very early pieces I can tell exactly what composer or even what work I was taken with at the time; in later years I think my allegiances are not so flagrantly exposed.

I should probably say something at this point about the part that folk music has played in my work. I have never consciously sought to incorporate folk elements into my more “serious” works, as a matter either of chauvinism or of local color. There has always been an interest in folk music, however, though that interest has been stronger with regard to foreign folk music than to the domestic variety. I do not know whether I was led to folk music through an affinity for the ecclesiastical modes, or whether that affinity was a result of acquaintance with folk music. However that may be, I have found relaxation and a good deal or satisfaction in arranging for performance (instrumental or vocal) a rather large number or folksongs of various nationalities: English, French, German, Portuguese, Swedish, Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Slovak, Russian, Japanese, and even Javanese. Some or these may have elements that have found their way by osmosis into my every-day vocabulary.

The only work during the composition of which I was deliberately aware of using folk elements is the setting for chorus and orchestra of Stephen Vincent Benét’s Ballad of William Sycamore (1955). With so folkloric a text it was a necessity that reference be made, and so I incorporated into the entire fabric elements of folksong and square dance remembered from my own childhood and youth, without citing particular pre-existent tunes. It may be significant that this, my most “American” piece, was written in France, not here .
No composer, I think, is capable of evaluating his significance in his own time, and certainly none can predict the fate of his music in the future. I write, as I believe most artists create, first for my own satisfaction and out of the great need I feel to take the stubborn materials of music and make them malleable, combine them into a convincing entity. Beyond that, I do think of the potential listener — naturally the ideal listener, open-minded and intelligent — but I have rarely if ever modified what I have wanted to write because of possible adverse listener reaction. One cannot reach the entire mass of humanity with any one offering, and music is far from the “universal language”. But I hope, and I have been assured by numerous listeners, that the music I write, fashionable or unfashionable, simple or complex, is capable of giving pleasure to some few people. Any future reward is an added bonus.
Inglewood, 15 June, 1976
* Dinesen, I., “A Cautionary Tale”, in Winter’s Tales. N.Y.:
Random House, 1942, p. 292-3.