This past week, I’ve been listening to some old favorites by Mozart and Beethoven and also looking at the composers’ own sketches whenever possible. Sketches in a composer’s hand are always revealing, and it’s difficult to give either composer’s sketches a cursory glance without being struck by how deeply each composer’s sketching habits express their own musical personalities. Beethoven’s sketches are full of inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites, and usually scribed with a thick, almost gouging pen stroke that reeks of creative effort; Mozart’s manuscripts (which are so complete they can rarely be called “sketches”) were penned quickly, almost breezily, with comparatively few changes other than filling in more supporting voices.
When I compare these two approaches, it’s difficult not to arrive at the impression that Mozart was recording something already (or mostly) formed in his inner ear, while for Beethoven composing was an often laborious process of figuring something out.
The Mozartean process of recording or transmitting idea (and of being open to the dictates of the subconscious) certainly has its advantages—especially if the composer is working within a received stylistic tradition (as Mozart, for all his wonderful wit and inventiveness, largely was). For those who seek to express themselves by pushing the boundaries of tradition, or who aim to discover uncharted territory far removed from tradition, it is often necessary to sketch and rework, as a more vigorously active participant. Most composers, I suspect, combine these different attitudes in all kinds of t ways, although just as Mozart and Beethoven we all have our predilections.
In today’s composing world, I hear an echo of the Mozartean attitude– though often without Mozart’s characteristic humor and child-like naturalness—in the ways that we tend to teach music composition. Despite the healthy stylistic openness that I’ve been happy to discover in today’s institutions of higher learning, the way that one is “supposed to” compose usually revolves around some variation of: “Figure out what you want to do first, then do it”, which indicates a profound separation between the conception of a work and its realization—composing as recording the results of already-worked-out parameters. This way of composing is often explicitly extolled (along the lines of “you have to know what you’re doing first before you can do it!”), and implicitly privileged in countless preconcert talks, college symposia, and lessons, in which the composer of the moment explains his or her intentions, following which the composition in question is judged on how well it “succeeded” at realizing these intentions.
This can be a useful approach, and I have no problem with it per se. But by over-emphasizing a way of composing that privileges faithful representation of mental constructs, I wonder if we’re failing to point out that composing can also be a process of discovery, experimentation, and play unrelated to prior planning (and resistant to critiques that rely on intention). While composing can be a way to transmit something that we already hold as essential, it can also be a process by which we come to understand our own thoughts and feelings.