Joshua Bell tells the Korea Times that he’s working toward writing his own stuff in a few years.  Could work, I suppose.  His pal Edgar Myers is a decent composer and fine musician.  But, you pretty much have to go back to Rachmaninoff to find someone who was “great” as both a performer and composer.  (Or, I’m sure someone will remind me that you don’t have to go back that far.)

Same thing for conductors.  Okay, Lenny was great at both but most are not.  The most excruciating half hour I ever spent in a concert hall (and this includes Chinese opera) was listening to some endless percussion drivel by Michael Tilson Thomas that he had forced upon the poor kids in the New World Symphony.  I really admire Esa Pekka but I just can’t warm to his music.

So, gang, what’s the verdict? 

44 Responses to “Do Conductors and Performers Make Good Composers?”
  1. Stefan says:

    I don’t think it would be a terrible idea for institutions to require students to pursue composition as a side-bar until the graduate years. At the very least, they could impose stricter performance requirements. As a composer degreed in performance, I can say that many fine performers tend to avoid playing the works of the “musical scientist” types some schools are churning out because the works have no real intended connection to the performers. Composers have got to play sometimes to stay in tune with the world of music. Composer/Conductor/Performer is a symbiotic organism; not three distinct fish-bowls. Each has to understand the other through experience — simple knowledge isn’t enough.

  2. Elaine Fine says:

    I do need to add my short list of great (and not often recognized) composer-performers:

    Adolf Busch
    George Enesco
    Dinu Lipati
    Benjamin Britten
    Fritz Kreisler
    Eugene Ysaye
    Eric Ewazen
    Pauline Viardot

  3. Elaine Fine says:

    Staying in shape on the violin takes time, and staying in the kind of shape that Joshua Bell needs to stay in takes a lot of time and a lot of physical labor. Writing music also takes time, but it is not as physically taxing as practicing the violin. It is addictive and rewarding in a way that practicing isn’t: the realization that music can sound good because of its material and not because of what YOU make of it is very exciting. When you realize that you can “sing” with a voice that can come out of another instrument, everything changes. When something you have written doesn’t sound like it was written by anybody else, and when it feels like genuine expression of your inner musical core, it becomes much more fun to spend all your time writing, and less of your time practicing.

    Since Joshua Bell is at the center of the musical world’s attention, his compositions will certainly be played and celebrated, and I imagine that they will be played by good musicians. He will not be one of the thousands of fine serious composers who devote a lot of time and care to writing music and rarely have a chance to hear their music played by first class musicians.

    Being a fine performing musician, expecially if you are a string player, a pianist, or a conductor, raises your personal standards as a composer because you spend much of your time in the intimate company of composers who are really great, like Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart.

  4. —and Lowell is conducting as well, so I add him to the list.

  5. Lowell Liebermann.

  6. Erno Dohnanyi was far more than a remarkable pianist, his actually being one of the great golden age virtuosos particularly known for his Beethoven. He wasn’t thought of as an especially good conductor (not enough of a hard-ass) but as a composer he reached greatness. More than just a few of his compositions have held up. I won’t get into a list here, but if you haven’t heard his 2nd Symphony, you need to.

  7. Hucbald says:

    To address the original question, “Do Conductors and Performers Make Good Composers?” without all of the tangents in comments, it seems obvious to me that composers arrive at composing from all angles. Haydn was first trained in a choir (And famously nearly ended up as a castrato), Mozart started out playing keyboard instruments, Berlioz was first a guitarist, Hindemith played viola in an orchestra, and several good composers came to it from conducting in the century just past. And yes, the question asked about “Good” composers, and not great ones.

    To add a tangent of my own, I would say that I’m not the only composer/performer – and I call myself a composer/performer and not vice versa because I compose many things I can not perform (Works for other than solo guitar) – who is of a mind that composition in general suffers today because so many composers do not perform. To be simplistic about it, this results in a lot of stuff that is no fun to play, and that is often no fun to listen to as well.

  8. fingers says:

    Ades is a fantastic conductor – did some of the best Ives I’ve ever heard. Hindemith also was a very fine conductor (hint: search his name on YouTube). And to the person who mentioned Kreisler – he also did a very interesting string quartet that’s far from dreck (although I don’t think the lighter stuff is dreck, either, it’s just different in intent). Conductor Skrowaczewski has composed good stuff, and so did Dorati. And some of the stuff Markevitch composed before he switched to conducting is really amazing. Dohnanyi (the older one) was a remarkable pianist, and some of his compositions are really holding up over time. Hmm, what about Bartok, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, all of whom wrote major stuff for their own piano-performance needs? Paderewski wrote a big sonata and a variation set for piano that are quite respectable efforts. And looking back is tricky – Pierne seems like a composer to me, but during his life I think he was seen more as a conductor. It’s not really that hard to imagine that for some French church-goers, Messiaen was their resident organist first, and composer second. Ditto Franck. And Durufle. And Dupre. Etc. Etc. So, yes, performers and conductors do make good composers (or maybe the other way around).

  9. Trevor Hunter says:

    Lots of good entries here, but one that I have to mention is Leo Brouwer. Guitar students can hardly get away from his work, and he was a beast on the instrument himself, with several recordings of him playing other peoples music.

  10. Jeffrey Farrington says:

    Robet Helps – as either composer or pianist – stunning.

  11. I think the main thing a composer/performer offers is an experience of music that is possibly more visceral than the hermetic composer. They know the risk of writing a part that a player might flub and has first hand connection with looking out on an audience and seeing yawns. 😉 They know that an ending needs to be special and a beginning even more so from looking out at the audience and seeing people who didn’t get ‘that’ bit…

    I think the one problem is that they more often than not write ‘crowd-pleasers’. (To quote Seinfeld) Not that there’s anything wrong with that (except that they usually suck). At least that was often the case in the past – less so now of course when you have examples like Webern and Holliger, etc.

  12. andrea says:

    not to make claims of greatness, but the most of the Anti-Social Music folks are composer-performers (our conducting is not so great, although we don’t need them very often. we did recently do a work where the conductor raps… and both quite well, actually — he’s also a tubist and composer, too) in a variety of styles. i think the composer-performer is becoming the norm again, if it ever left.

    tania leon is a formidable conductor-pianist-composer. others (at least two, if not three)… let’s see:
    robert ashley
    joan la barbara
    larry bell
    frederic rzewski
    robert dick
    pamela z
    roscoe mitchell
    pauline oliveros
    meredith monk
    arthur russell
    … there’s tons, really, but i can’t think of them all and not right this moment.

  13. Robert Jordahl says:

    When I think of great composer/conductors , the list begins with Mendelsohn, and includes
    Schumann, Berlioz, Mahler, before even touching upon 20th and 21st figures.

  14. JS — Yes, Iyer is a jazz guy, but he’s done some classical stuff too. Actually the only piece of his that I’ve heard was his piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra a few months ago, which was quite good.

  15. Rodney Lister says:

    I just happened–in regard to something else–to run across John Adams’s statement about his last In Your Ear Series for Zankel Hall last spring. He set it up to feature composer/performers, including Nico Muhly, Chris Thile, Stefan Freund, Caleb Burhans, Payton Macdonald, John Orfe, and Gavin Chuck.

  16. Rodney Lister says:

    Well, nobody has mentioned the subject of the last smack down on Sequenza21–Peter Maxwell Davies, who conducted The Fires of London throughout it’s 25 years of existence, also regularly the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic among others. I heard him once, at an Orkney Festival, do a performance of the Beethoven 7th with the Royal Philharmonic, on about 15 minutes of rehearsal, that was really good.

  17. Wes Flinn says:

    I did the MM in composition, the Ph.D. in theory (almost done, goshdarnit!) with a cognate in wind conducting.

    My current position has me doing two theory classes and a LOT of conducting – and this has actually caused me to start composing/arranging more; I guess being around a captive ensemble gives one impetus to fire off a few things.


  18. Rob Deemer says:

    When I was applying for DMA programs I had to decide whether or not to pursue a degree in conducting or composition – at that point I was doing equal amounts of both. I decided I’d rather be a composer who conducts rather than a conductor who composes, and got to do both at UT with the New Music Ensemble for three years. I’ve had a baton hiatus during my stay in Oklahoma (not much time nor opportunity), but hopefully after my move to NY I can get busy again.

  19. Samuel Vriezen says:

    Jerry, I do try not to make too much of my piano playing. I play a couple of my own pieces, but I even have some pieces I’m not sure I could ever really play myself… and I’ll keep my interpretations of Scriabin to myself! But I do like to think that taking up The Chord Catalogue as the first pianist to do so after Tom Johnson himself (and playing it twice as fast as Tom) might constitute a very minor but not entirely trivial contribution to the history of pianism. That piece is *weird*, in terms of technique…

  20. Maybe we should reverse the equation slightly. Should composers be good performers/conductors? In my years of performing in reading sessions, I’ve seen too much nonsensically difficult crap written by composers who really couldn’t ever play their way out of Suzuki Book 4. I think that the ‘better’ composers are also capable performers at some level. I believe it shapes a mindset attuned to the actualities of performance. (I know Stravinsky wasn’t the greatest pianist, but he was able to write concert vehicles for himself.) I had the pleasure of playing a wonderful Gershwin Concerto in F last year with Yehudi Wyner as soloist, and I would bet a dollar to a doughnut that his pianistic ability contributed something to his Piano Concerto.

  21. david toub says:

    Funny, I still think of Georges Enescu as a violinist, although I’m aware he also composed. He was a great teacher, but I’ve never liked the recordings I’ve heard—Szeryng’s performance of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas are so much better than Enescu’s for some reason (Enescu sounds badly out of tune)

  22. Lukas Foss.

    Also, Brad Lubman, known more as a conductor, is also a composer.

  23. Steve Layton says:

    HA! It’s always been hard to find a composer who doesn’t perform occasionally, ourselves included. But I think we’d be better off talking only about those that more nearly maintain a 50/50 mix of both activities. Whether they actually perform half the time isn’t so important as that they could just as easily sit down with some instrument as to compose. That’s a much smaller and more defined class.

  24. Jerry Bowles says:

    Well, if you’re going to bring in jazz, you have to mention Edward Ellington, who was a great conductor, composer and pianist. John Adams does a fair bit of conducting. And, as someone mentioned, Ades writes, performs and conducts at a very high level.

    But, let’s talk about the S21 community. Who, among our daily faithful, performs and composes professionally? I believe Rodney does his own stuff and Larry Bell and Samuel. Who else?

  25. JS says:

    Galen – Vijay Iyer is fantastic, but isn’t he a jazz guy?

  26. JS says:

    David – for a composer-violinist in the 20th century, try Enescu. At this point he’s thought of as a composer (when he’s thought of at all), but I think in his lifetime he was known as a concert violinist.

  27. A few more examples of contemporary/recent classical composer/performers who are excellent or well respected in both areas (in no particular order):
    Evan Zipporyn
    Nathan Davis
    Ha-Yang Kim
    Steve Mackey
    Vijay Iyer
    Robert Beaser

    I’m sure there are lot’s more, that’s just a few minutes of brainstorming.

  28. JS says:

    Evan Ziporyn. There’s no question in my mind as to his greatness as a composer or as a clarinetist.

    Gunther Schuller might not be a great composer, but he’s certainly an important one, and he was something of a prodigy as a french horn player.

    And at the peak of his abilities, Hindemith was quite possibly the best viola player in the world for a few years. Whatever THAT’S worth.

  29. david toub says:

    It makes me nervous when folks start knowingly or unknowingly pigeon-holing – it gives the impression that we’re all supposed to do only one thing to the exclusion of anything else (composers compose, performers perform and conductors conduct). If Joshua Bell wants to compose – more power to him! If he has an easier time getting it recorded – so much the better. He’s an incredible musician who has been performing for years and I’m sure he’s got something to say. The more the merrier.

    My point exactly. thanks, rob

  30. Rob Deemer says:

    I’m of the mind that composing should be something that any serious musician feel comfortable in pursuing, whether their main gig is performing or conducting. Of course, I’m also of the mind that any serious composer should have performing and conducting experience as well, but that’s just me. Many of the examples already given point to this, especially with JLZ’s mention of jazz (where performer/composers are the rule, not the exception).

    It makes me nervous when folks start knowingly or unknowingly pigeon-holing – it gives the impression that we’re all supposed to do only one thing to the exclusion of anything else (composers compose, performers perform and conductors conduct). If Joshua Bell wants to compose – more power to him! If he has an easier time getting it recorded – so much the better. He’s an incredible musician who has been performing for years and I’m sure he’s got something to say. The more the merrier.

  31. Evan says:

    Bruno Maderna.
    Olivier Messiaen.
    Michael Finnissy.
    Heinz Holliger.
    Beat Furrer.

    I’m not going to get into the “greatness” thing, but the above are certainly notable for their contributions in both performance and composition, however much Finnissy and Furrer concentrate exclusively on contemporary music in the former. But Maderna I think belongs at the top of the list; he was a truly outstanding conductor.

  32. Peter Mueller says:

    There are a few. I have to admit many of them are not umong my favorite conductors. Andre Previn & Lorin Maazel come to mind. Of generations past there’s Howard Hanson, Igor Markevich and Wilhelm Furtwangler. I’ve got a recording of Stravinsky conducting Tchaikowsky 2nd, I seem to remember Druckman conducting some Ravel, and Penderecki conducting Sibelius.

  33. Chris Becker says:

    JL – Yeah – when I read this post, I first thought of all of the incredible so-called “jazz” musicians throughout the 20th and 21st century who compose, play, improvise and yes, conduct. There are so many I can think of with with totally different approaches to these three general aspects of creating music.

    It is strange that instead of discussing all of this music in terms of parallel streams of development, things like geography, Western technique and yes, race creep in encouraging divisiveness. I am NOT taking anyone here to task though, this is just something that went through my mind reading J-L’s post.

  34. david toub says:

    Galen, I think what you state about Boulez also was true of Bernstein—he wanted to be taken more seriously as a composer than he was as a conductor. I also suspect that many years ago, it was not at all uncommon for people who were studying composition to also study conducting, both subjects very seriously. We all think of Mahler as a composer (and a damned good one at that). But in his day, the public probably knew him more as a conductor, particularly in NY. I suspect this was more true of conductors than instrumentalists, with the possible exception of pianists, since some did indeed gravitate towards composition. While some violinists like Ysaye and Paganini were also composers (and Ysaye is terribly underrated as a composer), I’m not aware that in the last century most string players composed; not Heifetz, not Piatagorsky, not Milstein, etc. Another exception I can think of is the violinist Reuben Varga, who dabbled with works for violin. And yeah, there was Fritz Kreisler as well, but outside of his really great piece Praeludium and Allegro, most of his output is stucke dreck.

  35. J L Zaimont says:

    Have we decided here to bypass jazz altogether?

    Similar to 19th century ‘fastasies’ on opera themes would be extended piano variations ( read “improv”) by folks like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.

    [ Britten and Shulamit Ran are among personal great exx. in the concert-music world more recent than Rachmaninov.]

  36. Dan says:

    Thomas Ades is an excellent pianist and a pretty good composer. I believe he conducts also but haven’t heard

  37. zeno says:

    It should also be pointed out that Leonard Bernstein had access to ‘orchestrators’ to assist him in many of his later classical compositions. (Prokofiev did too for some of his later scores — especially the ballets The Stone Flower and Cinderella.)

    Perhaps Benjamin Britten was one of the last great performer/composers in the classical line (Rachmaninoff) suggested by Jerry? While his music could be eclectic, it was almost light-years ahead professionally compared with Leonard Bernstein’s classical compositions (e.g., compare the War Requiem with its faint echo in Chicester Psalms).

    Olivier Messiaen was also, of course, a master performer/composer.

  38. The thing that strikes me as odd about this — and I hasten to emphasize that I might not know what I’m talking about — is that people who say “at some point I’d like to compose” alwayse seem non-serious to me. I just have trouble imagining a composer who decides “I want to compose” and then waits — I feel like a composer is usually somebody who is always composing, almost as a compulsion. Now one thing that might be going on is I’m used to hearing civilians say “I’d like to compose someday” or “someday I’m going to write poetry” and from civilians this seems like non-serious fantasy–that they like the idea of someday doing it than the reality of it. But maybe serious professionals like Bell and other pros I’ve heard say things like that are a different class of people, and maybe what they really mean is “I compose, but it’s not at the level people expect from a famous musician, so I’m going to keep working on it and I expect that at some point soon I’ll be at a level where my music will be fit for public consumption.” So in this interview Bell _sounds_ like he decided one day that he wanted to compose, and finally he sat down and wrote a violin sonata and because he’s famous he can get it released, but it’s his first real piece. But that seems unlikely–probably he’s been composing on the side for years (maybe less often than people with less involved touring schedules, but that’s fine) and he’s finally hitting his stride, but for PR reasons it’s better to convey the composing as a new thing. I don’t know–this is just sort of rambling speculation and I’d be curious to hear if anybody has any smart thoughts on the subject.

    The second thing I want to say is that when assessing the potential of performers as composers we need to differentiate between whether we’re asking if they can/have been great composers or merely good composers. I suspect a lot of people who are primarily known as hotshot performers are or would make perfectly respectable composers — and most people who are composers first are merely good too. Are we holding famous performers to a higher standard becuase we assume that their greatness as performers ought to mean they will be great composers as well? Conductors, especially, I would think would probably be especially good at technical things like orchestration and structure since they have done more analysis of the great works than most composer have, but that’s different from having great ideas. But on the other hand, not many composers have great ideas, and many of them have less deep knowledge of the great works than conductors do.

    Incedentally, Essa-Pekka Salonen considers himself a composer who conducts even though the public thinks of him in the reverse. Conducting was for him a way to make a living while he tried to launch a composing career, and he turned out to be really good at it. I suspect Boulez feels the same way, but I don’t know for sure.

  39. david toub says:

    Is it really true that every conductor composes? I’ve never heard that one before. I also don’t know that it’s true that conductors usually know more music than anyone. There’s only so much time for them to listen to things outside of work, and even as part of work. They have their niches, just like instrumentalists. I also don’t think it’s ever possible to know too much music. It is definitely possible to write derivative music in that environment, but in that case, one doesn’t have a personal voice at all, overwhelmed or not. People can, do, and should listen to as much music as they can. Same with composers.

    One person I’m kicking myself for not thinking of immediately is Julius Eastman. Great composer, and a great performer.

  40. Every conductor composes, whether they make it public or not. Among the best ones is the certifiably great conductor Felix Weingartner. I’ve listened repeatedly to all the CPO recordings of his symphonies and they are without exception, excellent. I think all the music written by conductors tends to be music of synthesis, as conductors usually know more music than anyone. It’s the conductor’s job description. Truthfully, I think it’s possible to know too much music, and one’s own voice can be subtly overwhelmed.

    Bernstein may have been a great conductor, but he was far from a great executant at the keyboard. Quite sloppy, but that personality distracted one from focusing too much upon his lack of digital acuity. In his compositions he demonstrated the synthesis I mentioned, an eclecticism less than fully digested, that showed his acquaintance with nearly the whole of the western canon.

  41. Chris Becker says:

    The AACM on the other hand includes several performers possessing solid (even virtuostic) instrumental technique who also compose AND conduct. And the resulting music reflects this versatility. Leroy Jenkins, Bill Dixon, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell to name but a few (or four).

    That said, I agree with Samuel who points out what I think is now a standard part of music making in our time which is composers performing their own music that on the surface might not seem technically challenging to play, but does in fact require a mature and unique level of awareness, sensitivity and creativity.

  42. Samuel Vriezen says:

    If you look for ‘great’ composer/performers, you easily get into money and power people like Boulez (I don’t like his work but I guess he’s a reasonable candidate): he does all the things a great composer does (he writes things that sound to me like symphonies) and that a great conductor does (operas).

    To me, it’s ususally more interesting to drop this idea of the great, and to look at musical communities where composers perform their own work according to their particular standards. The Wandelweiser group is today one such community: many of the people involved have developed a very particular performance sensitivity, that is completely directed towards their refined and extreme post-Cage esthetics. It’s a music that in a sense is not hard to do, it doesn’t take the kind of display of technique that one usually assumes from a ‘great’ performer, but in the end only few people really do it well.

  43. david toub says:

    I don’t think one should make generalizations. Many of the composers I knew and loved growing up were in fact performers as best as I am aware (Liszt, Paganini, Rachmaninoff Schoenberg, Mahler, Adams are particularly notable). I like Jon Gibson’s music—not all of it, to be sure, but much of it. And he’s certainly thought of more as a performer than a composer. Meredith Monk is both, as are many new music performers like Rzewski and Alvin Curran. And I’m purposely ignoring composer/performers who are best known for performing their own music, as opposed to the music of others (like SR, Riley and Glass). But to be fair, all of the big five “minimalist” composers (Reich, Glass, Riley, Young, Adams) have all performed other composers’ music at some point. And then there’s Schnabel, who wrote 12-tone music, although I’ve never heard any of his music and thus can’t judge it.

    At the same time, there are people who are great performers who go ahead and try their hand at composing with not so great results. But that’s true of anyone. So I think that being a performer doesn’t make one a better composer, and being a performer doesn’t make one a terrible composer. It’s not relevant, as I see it, if one is a performer or not with regard to the quality of one’s compositions. But who’s to say what’s good and what isn’t? If EPS is happy with his music, then that’s great.

  44. zeno says:

    Conductor Pierre Boulez is a major if not outstanding composer. Pli Selon Pli, Rituel, and a few other works are long lasting.

    I found Michael Tilson Thomas’s From the Diary of Anne Frank of comparable quality to many ASOL-type new symphonic works.