1. Advice for the Young Composer

The purpose of this essay is to share my experience as a beginning composer. To speak of the art of composition one must begin with notation.

Suppose you were interested in taking a course in writing poetry, but in the class the only subject was the alphabet. At the end you would no doubt conclude that you had learned nothing about poetry. This is very similar to how some people teach music — we teach the notes, but not the music. For instance, I once took a graduate class in music where we were instructed to buy a score of Beethoven’s Third Symphony and with a pencil draw Roman numerals under each beat for the entire symphony for the purpose of studying the harmony. Those who know this score will understand that it took several weeks to do this.

I still recall my thoughts when I finished, shoved back my chair, put down my pencil and looked at the score and concluded I had learned nothing about the Third Symphony nor of Beethoven. On the other hand, had I been so instructed I could have written an extensive paper on “Beethoven’s use of the Subdominant Chord in his Third Symphony.” Such a paper would have consisted of numerous graphs and statistics which would have also failed to communicate anything of value about the symphony or of Beethoven.

Why does such a process have so little value in the field of Music? With children we begin the instruction of writing with the alphabet, and we do the same in teaching Music, the equivalent of the alphabet being the notes. Next, in language, we teach how to combine the letters of the alphabet to make words. And we do the same thing in Music; notes become chords. The third step in teaching writing is to demonstrate how to use words to express a thought, “I am thinking of my Mother.” But in the teaching of Music here we stop; there is no third step.

We do not teach how to express feeling through Music, even though, ironically, that is the very purpose of Music: to communicate feelings and emotions.

We do emphasize in the teaching of performance, by players and conductors, the importance of studying a composition to try to determine the composer’s feelings in order to communicate that in performance — we say the performer must become the composer. Otherwise a performance is merely a rendering of dead notes. Notes [sounds] without Music.

But this is something different. It is not the same as beginning with our own feeling and then trying to find the notes to communicate this to a listener. And this is where music education fails the person who would compose. He is given no instruction in turning feelings into music, even though, again, that is the real purpose of music! The composer first has a feeling he wants to communicate through Music and he must then search, through trial and error, to find exactly the notes which must come next.

And this is the blank wall I ran into when I decided, at age fifty, to compose my first composition, my Opus One. I had made this decision due to the strong recommendation of my close friend, Frederick Fennell, who, in view of the significance of the number fifty in a lifespan, felt that everyone should do one thing different at age fifty and beyond. I had the theoretical knowledge to compose, my first minor in the Ph.D. program having been in theory. But when I sat down to compose, I did not know what to write on paper! As a successful conductor I had spent years studying other composer’s emotions in their scores, but I had rarely sat down to think deeply about my own emotions. But, as the reader will see in the following essay, once I experienced a strong desire to communicate an emotion through Music, the Music of my Opus One began to flow.

Jumping ahead beyond the initial inspiration point, there are three important areas which need to be discussed on behalf of the would be young composer. First, the fundamental working material in a tonality which the composer has to work with is only seven notes. When one considers that this has been the case for several hundred years, with thousands of composers and their compositions, one wonders if all the good melodies possible with these seven notes have already been written. One fears that one will write a melody that turns out to be the same as some famous melody by someone else!

As a case in point, I composed my first work, a piano concerto with band, when I was aged eighteen and a student at the University of Michigan. The score no longer exists but as I recall it was filled with the enthusiasm of a young student who had been hearing great masterpieces for the first time. Consequently, stylistically it ran the gamut from Bach to Wagner — as my friends quickly pointed out. There was one melody in particular which several students pointed out was identical with a melody in the second movement of the Berlioz Requiem. In this case the interesting thing was that at age eighteen I am quite sure I had never heard the Berlioz Requiem. Nevertheless, into the trash the score went so I would not be accused of stealing a melody from Berlioz!

On this obstacle my advice to the beginning composer is to write on paper what you feel and have no concern for either the past or the future.

Another topic of importance has to do with the composer hearing a performance of his work. Having dedicated great effort in finding the “right notes” he is always at risk of hearing a performance where his music is completely misunderstood, or worse, not taken seriously. Because composition is so personal for the composer, there can be circumstances where friendships are lost over a performance. Indeed, this is so important that there have been composers who have composed and not shown their scores to anyone. Anton Reicha had a trunk where he kept his best works hidden and I know of one composition Mozart never allowed to leave his desk.

This introduces the third issue I want to mention, the fact that I believe composers really just compose for themselves. I once heard in Europe a scholar say that he believed that Beethoven would have been just as happy to have had all of his scores buried with him. And I believe that, for the real reward in composing is in the accomplishment itself.