Do Composers Read?

Perhaps we take for granted that composers read, and spend time with books (as well as scores). People do. It is part of belonging to a culture, though the physical book may appear to be in decline as the on line presence of the word takes precedence (though sales figures for 2016 show digital sales at £554m against print books at a healthy 2.76bn). There is no need to surround ourselves with texts laid out on shelves – so that as the eye quickly scans the tale told of how we view the world. Our choice of reading can become known (to on-line companies such as Amazon who collect our search data) or via our blogs and Facebook pages. Want to know what Brian Eno is reading (and has read)? Very easy.  Just look here.  So much of our nature, knowledge and imagination comes out from what we read; a list or a sight of books that belong to us, can say so much. Biographies are often measured in books read, books absorbed, books returned to, books loved and remembered.

The poet Kathleen Raine, upon launching her research into the visionary art of William Blake, set out to read all that Blake read – and what an astonishing list that seems to have been! As I began studying the life and work of Beethoven, with particular reference to the reverence Beethoven has engendered from the Chinese, I sought to discover what that composer might have known, and that means might have read, about that very distant mystery that was China in the early years of the 19C (Further background on my reasons for doing this can be found here). And to do this I was to find that Beethoven’s library was currently being reconstructed. Here is a statement of intent from the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn:

Biographical and composition-related studies have always raised questions concerning Beethoven’s mind and the mindset of his environment. What influences was he exposed to? How did he educate himself? What principles and rules of thumb did he follow? In order to study Beethoven’s intellectual interests, all books and sheet music the composer read, studied, copied, extracted, put to music, owned, borrowed and lent, gave away or planned to buy need to be identified. The result would be a long list. However, even Beethoven’s core belongings, his own book and music sheet collection, are only known in parts. In a joint effort, his library is now to be reconstructed. Librarians and scholars contribute their knowledge and antiquarians and private collectors sell their books granting special conditions. Friends of the Beethoven-Haus can contribute, too, by adopting books.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 11.31.15Looking through the already assembled list of publications we see a composer who read widely, not just the latest treatise on music, but on the sciences, the natural sciences, travel and explorations, theology, poetry and the newly emerging medium of fiction. He even owned some cookery books! Does this matter? Did his engagement with books affect what Beethoven thought and wrote? Of course, but only a close attention to his letters, diaries and sketchbooks can begin to tell us how. As soon as one begins to look at, for example, the collections of poetry he possessed, a world opens up that we might not have imagined.

Christophe August Teige is almost unknown even to music scholars today except for the texts Beethoven took for several songs. Yet his Urania über Gott, Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit (1800; 18th ed., 1862), a lyric-didactic poem, inspired by the ethics of Emanuel Kant, enjoyed wide popularity in the beginning of the nineteenth century. This book about God, Immortality and Freedom has long disappeared from view. It is certainly no longer, if it ever was,  ‘a classic’.

Ob ein Gott sei? Ob er einst erfülle / Was die Sehnsucht weinend sich verspricht? / Ob, vor irgendeinem Weltgericht, / Sich dies rätselhafte Sein enthülle? / Hoffen soll der Mensch! Er frage nicht!

 Is there a God? Will he someday fulfill/ The promises for which longing cries out? / Will, before the court of the world, / This puzzle ever reveal itself? /Man must hope. He does not ask!

Yet these words were deemed significant enough by the genius that was Beethoven to form a text for a solo song.: A Hymn to Hope Op.32.

So this assumption composers not only read, but read closely enough to imbibe meaning and form a measure of understanding, opens up possibly uncharted territory of imaginative and analytical adventure. Could or might composers not only set words to be sung, but, and as we know Schumann appears to reveal in Papillion ‘settings’ words from Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre, become the basis for purely instrumental work? In our own time it is well-known that composers have progressed such unsung setting in rich and various ways. Look no further than Hans Werner Henze to discover so many works derived, influenced and ‘set’ to words from an almost bewildering number and variety of sources. Words in both prose and poetic form can create unique musical structures, and yet this largely inescapable fact would seem to have been rarely revealed in any depth in analytical study, though Stephen Downes illuminates Henze’s real and active relationship with poetic texts in his study of the Seventh Symphony where the finale he claims is a close ‘setting’ of Holderlin’s Hälftes des Lebens.

Daniel C. Pappas, in his doctoral study of Henze’s Requiem, has underlined this composer’s association with the poetic word and also pointed to a work for cello and orchestra Englische Liebeslieder (1984). His aim in Liebeslieder, for cello and orchestra, was “to compose a set of songs without words” where “a poetic formal model would be turned into a musical formal model; and musical shapes would have to be found to correspond to this or that poetic object or idea, to this or that image or emotion or figure of effect.” Henze admits a need to spell out these connections-between words and music-in his earlier scores. Beginning with Liebeslieder however, he aims to free the listener from any need of finding intended parallels between his source material and the resultant music by concealing it altogether.’

With Henze a quick look at his work list shows a rich catalogue of vocal work including some 26 operas. But now make a list of pieces inspired, or indeed (possibly) ‘set’ instrumentally, and there is clearly a very serious engagement with the written word. Maybe we are witnessing here the composer regarding poetry as the priming agent to musical sound and structure. Should we be asking why this should be? Should this concern the performer and the listener. In Henze’s Requiem of nine sacred concertos, each based on a movement of the liturgical Requiem Mass, the composer has written in his autobiography Bohemian Fifths:

Whereas Masses for the Dead normally rely for their effectiveness, at least in part, on the human voice and their Latin words, it is now the instrumentalists who are entrusted with that task: they are expected to think the words and assume the function of the singers, empathizing with that role and imitating it on their instruments. One might say that in this work my theory and my ideal of the interchangeability of vocal and instrumental music has found its most extensive realization to date.

This is nothing new, as during the Renaissance period such interchangability was common-practice and achievable, because most instrumental writing maintained the limited compass of the singing voice. In my own work I have been keen to include such interchangability, notably in the final movement of Quatuor des Timbres, Study of the Object and The Heavens are Telling. Admittedly the latter does take inspiration from the 5-part spiritual madrigals of Heinrich Schein.

The relationship between text and music  - and now not only text in book form – has become self-evident in the titles composers often give to their compositions. Does it give a piece of music some kind of additional credibility to be associated with (particularly) a well-known or revered text? It’s common to hear composers in interviews about a new work discussing how a particular title was designated, or indeed came into being. Calling a new work Intimate Letters (Janacek) or Clocks and Clouds (Ligeti) conjures up more than just a string quartet or a symphonic movement. The latter title is taken from an essay by philosopher Karl Popper, and according to Ligeti, he ‘” liked Popper’s title and it awakened in me musical associations of a kind of form in which rhythmically and harmonically precise shapes gradually change into diffuse sound textures and vice-versa, whereby then, the musical happening consists primarily of processes of the dissolution of the ‘clocks’ to ‘clouds’ and the condensation and materialization of ‘clouds’ to ‘clocks’.” As for Janacek’s 2nd String Quartet the nickname “Intimate Letters” (“Listy důvěrné” in Czech) was given by the composer, as it was inspired by his long and spiritual friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. The composition was intended to reflect the character of their relationship as revealed in more than 700 letters they exchanged with each other:

You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…

What a descriptive or evocative title can achieve is as a touchstone for the composer, first and foremost from which imagination can take hold and focus during composition itself. A composer, whose title for a new orchestral work I had not connected with very positively , rightly took me to task over my comments made from what was a close listening experience. His reply to my statement and question that his piece had been ‘a monolithic music vividly imagined – but from what?’ had been ‘My imagination!’. Point rightly made, taken, and understood.

Looking recently at the intriguing work of recent Guggenheim Fellow Oscar Bettison I came across this as description of his engagement with text. ‘A hidden narrative has always been important to me in writing my music, and in working in larger scale formats this has, if anything, become more important. Narrative structures and narrative devices inform my musical thinking . . . ‘ The only work in his current catalogue that claims a standard musical title was his String Quartet. Here is his excellent programme note:

My string quartet is in three movements (played without a break at about 25 minutes). I started out my musical life as a violinist and, after years of not doing so, I have recently come back, very happily to writing for strings. Although the piece is very ornate (at least for me) and extremely demanding to play, I really think of it being about some fundamentals of string playing: attack, sustain and articulation. The piece is arranged so that, for the most part, the attacks are all arrayed in the first movement, the second is concerned with bowing, especially as a metaphor for breathing, and the third is concerned about resonance and decay. So, in a way, I think of the piece as one extremely long bow-stroke.

Bettison has taken the very nomenclature of the medium as his inspiration, so that the title String Quartet is entirely apt. This is then music about, and of, the medium. So what had been developing in Bettison’s mind as he composed this piece was a sequence of imaginative reactions to ‘fundamentals of string playing: attack, sustain and articulation.’

Note: to listen to the first performance of this work go to:   and find the box marked Search All Media. Then enter TMC75 Oscar Bettison, String Quartet (world premiere).

Bettison is currently on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory at John Hopkins University. There’s a short but illuminating YouTube introduction to him as a teacher and composer that you can find on his profile page at Peabody. And that brings me neatly to what I’m planning will be a series of essay on a composer also teaching at this prestigeous US conservatory – Michael Hersch.

A page from Vanishing Pavilions by Michael Hersch

A page from The Vanishing Pavilions by Michael Hersch

In many ways this entire essay has been a prelude to what I am looking forward to exploring within the compositions of Michael Hersch. He holds a very particular relationship with the written word, and in particular the poetic world. His ‘poets’ include Christopher Middleton, Thomas Hardy, W.G.Sebald, Robert Lowell and Marin Sorescu. Many of his pieces associated with these writers and their work come from collecting fragments during his hours spent reading. These fragments are brought together as a signs on a journey through more than the text in question. They appear to act as a mirror to Hersch’s own imaginative terrain. What I’m keen to do in giving time and analytical space to just two of his recent works, one for solo violin, the other for orchestra, is to write a guide to what is a very intense ‘voice’ articulating those depths that so often lie beneath the poetic words. And as George Steiner reminds us:  ‘our poetry is haunted by the music it has left behind.’


And now I reach for Errata by George Steiner and turn to Chapter Six and remind myself yet again of his extraordinary discussion of the triangulation between the ‘nature and nomination of God, that of higher mathematics, and that of music’ that these three domains ‘set the boundary conditions of language’. I believe this chapter is a must-read for any composer.

Steiner continues to affect my own relationship with ‘the word’ particularly in his bringing together of a lifetime’s experience to remind me of the ‘constantly fascinating . . . interactions between music and the other arts, between music and poetry.’


The opening page of Nights Becalmed by Nigel Morgan (from The Chicago Quartet #1)

Only six months ago I succumbed to his amazing prose to supply me with titles and a textual backdrop to my own Chicago Quartet #1 after G.F.Telemann. In Chapter Four of Errata Steiner narrates his year as an undergraduate in that ‘windy city’ and delivered to me a series of wonderful movement titles: Megalopolis of Pure Intensity, Scholar, Pilot Fish, Discovering Difficulty, Nights Becalmed, Sirens Singing; each title so very rich in meaning and affect, guiding the music with purpose even within the confines of Telemann’s dance suite form.
















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