Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald
Many articles have been written purporting to tell the inquisitive how composers work and how masterpieces are produced. Well, the best example I know lies in the British Museum. concealed in several volumes of Beethoven’s sketch books, containing hundreds of pages of music paper covered with notes, segments of melodies, or what might be termed the chrysales of melodies. Such things came to him in flashes, and were hastily written down. Unfortunately, the greater number of them were found to be unsuitable for use when the composer sat down seriously to work. We know that for him musical composition — not the invention of melodies — was a laborious undertaking. No two composers have the same temperament or outlook, nor do they follow the same procedure. Only Beethoven, of all the great composers, ever disclosed his methods. But many composers have spoken of the processes of composition in their subconscious minds.
Therefore, I think that Percy Scholes’s method of dealing with Composition, classified under fifteen heads, is original and highly interesting1. (But, incidentally, I might mention that Bernard Shaw has told us of his way of writing, which, like that of Beethoven, involves the rejection of most of the ideas that present themselves.) The formation of the nebulae of musical work varies in its concept with the individual; but there must be similarity with all composers in the beginning of such things. From a certain age, Wagner states that he conceived poetry and music simultaneously and much after the manner of Mozart, who heard his works complete in his mind before writing them out.
Berlioz poured scorn on composers who used the piano for composition, and that because he himself was of that rare race of composers for whom actual sounds are poison to thoughts when in the throes of composition. For others, the piano is a necessary ancillary to composition. Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt used the piano, as also did the more modern composers, Busoni, Debussy and Delius. For these, extemporising and preludising unlocks the mind and releases thoughts.
Reading the lives and habits of great composers, we find that Arthur Sullivan, like Beethoven, used the sketch book idea, and when confronted with the setting of a lyric, would make a number of rhythmical patterns and select the most likely from which to develop a melody. It would appear that, excepting Schubert, the works of these composers which impress most by their freshness and spontaneity are those which gave the composer real labour to write.
The most pointed quotation from a composer is that of Richard Strauss, who speaks of ‘working coolly, without agitation, and even without emotion’. He adds ‘The head that composed Tristan must have been cold as marble’. Even if we knew by what process Wagner composed Tristan, that knowledge would not help another composer. Each composer must work in his own way, and in doing so, like Wagner and Elgar, creates his own technique: and there is plenty of evidence to that effect.
This article follows one reviewing Scholes’s Oxford Companion to Music. ↩︎
On the other hand, by La main gauche
Musical opinion, November 1938, pp. 105–106