I recently attended a concert featuring music by Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak is one of those much beloved composers whose music I find incredibly inconsistent due, in no small part, to his incredible facility in composition. To paraphrase a conductor friend, he just doesn’t seem to struggle enough for his notes (this friend was referring not to Dvorak but to Camille Saint-Saens, however, a composer whose work, in my opinion, embodies this dichotomy even more problematically than Dvorak). Being an extremely opinionated consumer of social media, I immediately posted something to this effect on my Facebook page, something with elicited a minor controversy and one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve ever had on my wall. A couple of things came up in this discussion that have stayed with me: 1. what is this struggle and why is it so important? And 2. Is it okay to criticize the GREATS of the past?
So, what do I mean by struggle? A romantic (or Romantic) aspect of this comes to us from, like many things, Beethoven. Beethoven famously and mightily worked out his ideas in copious sketchbooks before setting them down in a score. His struggle, mind you, is rather mythologized, but it added to his mystique as a composer, even in life, and remains a part not just of his legacy but, being perhaps the gold standard of GREAT composer, of all our compositional legacies (well, at least our baggage).
Mozart is the most famous and sublime antithesis to this notion. Young Wolfgang Amadeus, perhaps the first freelance composer in Western music history, had famous, prolific facility for composition, sometimes producing sets of parts before producing an autograph manuscript of a score. Much like Beethoven’s struggle, however, this facility is largely the product of mythmaking, particularly stemming from Mozart’s years as a stupefying child prodigy and propagated primarily by his father, Leopold. Mozart, unlike Beethoven, didn’t see the need to work out his ideas on paper, but you’d better believe that ideas as gloriously worked out as his, particularly in the works of his last decade, were arrived at after careful consideration.
As to the question of criticism of the GREATS: a composer friend of mine took issue with this notion, suggesting, somewhat ironically, I think, that I must be supremely confident in my own compositional abilities to feel comfortable criticizing GREAT composers like Dvorak or Saint-Saens for “not being great enough.” Hubris (I am confident in my abilities or I wouldn’t be a professional composer, but I try, at least, to keep grounded about where I fit in. We stand, after all, on the shoulders of giants), however, is not what drives my criticism.
Just as writers must be prolific readers, so should composers be prolific listeners. In the act of listening (or reading) one absorbs certain lessons about how to write one’s own work. How else are we to arrive at something resembling a confident voice as artists if we are not free to criticize, good or ill, the work of others, good or GREAT? The key, of course, is to apply that same criticism–turned up to eleven, perhaps– to our own work.
I bring this up because Dvorak teaches me about my own strengths and weaknesses as a composer. Like Dvorak (or Saint-Saens, or Hindemith…), I have an amazing facility at generating notes, something which has proven to be a double edged sword, to say the least. On the one hand, I am able to finish a piece relatively quickly, which comes in handy when facing a looming deadline. On the other hand, I have become increasingly suspicious of my initial ideas, and will agonize for long periods over my ideas (in my head and on the computer), often putting pieces down for weeks or months at a time (when the schedule allows it) before reaching a final decision on a passage. This is more problematic the older I get, it seems, although recently I have found that ideas are flowing very easily…which fills me with dread that the piece I’m working on is no good!
Perhaps this dread is also part of the struggle. Or perhaps Dvorak’s and Saint-Saens’ advocates on my Facebook wall are right: not every piece should be a masterpiece. Maybe I should just relax and let pieces do what they will do. I should be so lucky as to find the kind of audience that Dvorak and Saint-Saens (and yes, even Hindemith) enjoy!

2 Responses to “Long Live the Struggle?”
  1. Paul Muller says:

    I think Bach also supplies a counter-example to the Beethoven style of composition. Even a glance at a Bach manuscript reveals a man in a hurry to put down his ideas. His first 3 years in Leipzig saw Bach composing, notating, rehearsing and performing 20 minutes of new church music a week – and still we marvel at the consistency and quality of of his work. What we have received from him during this time seems like frozen improvisations – take a chorale tune, harmonize it and then weave a chorus and a few arias out of the same material – all brilliantly done, of course, but more instinctive than intellectual.

    I guess there will always be two models – are we composing monumentally – like a bridge builder, struggling with every detail and creating something for all time – or do we strive for consistent craftsmanship like the cabinet maker?

  2. If you can write just ONE novel, play, poem, short story, paint one painting, compose one work that manages to be enjoyed by millions of people 100 years later–you have done something that puts you at the head of your class. Dvorak wrote his Symphonies no. 7 and 9, his Piano Quintet op. 81, his Cello Concerto, the Slavonic Dances, his String Quartets no. 12 and 13, and Songs My Mother Taught Me. That’s just off the top of my head. 8 masterpieces there, the New World Symphony, Cello concerto, and Quintet among the finest examples of those particular genres ever written.

    I know what you’re saying about his lesser works, there does seem to be a bit of routine note-spinning going on there, but do you really care about those lesser works when he wrote so many great pieces? Gotta respect the man for those masterpieces.

    I don’t buy into the belief that the more effort one puts into a creative endeavor, the better it can be. Some creative people work best impulsively or naturally (Bach and Mozart, as have been cited). I’ve heard far too many works composed in a couple of days that are better than pieces composed over a period of months or even years to put much credibility into the theory that struggle and effort equals greatness.

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