How long does it take to write a piece of music? The question of course is ridiculous. Yet composers and their advocates or detractors can make much of the issue. The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard on a Youtube interview snootily describes his friend George Benjamin’s meticulous writing process and observes that other composers of similar talent might turn out five pieces a year, when Benjamin scarcely completes one. The implication: a Benjamin piece will be at least five times as good. Is this assumption justified? Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Schubert thought it nothing to write thirty or forty pieces in a year. Does this make them inferior composers? Among moderns, Berg and Webern were famously costive, and Henze and Peter Maxwell Davies famously prolific, or even profligate. Wolfgang Rihm’s catalogue stands at over 400 works. If you do the maths, this must mean one work (and many of his pieces are gigantic in scale) for almost every month of his adult life.
In this as in most things, composers differ from one another. The most helpful thing one can do is to determine where our current bias lies and to ask if it helps or hinders composers. And clarifying the issue begins, as it so often does for composers, with the subject of money. The economic situation for new works (2014) is parlous. There are few commissions and even less money for high-price enterprises like recordings. This has led many composers to be understandably careful about what they release. In a tight market, why put out a lot of pieces that are sub-standard? Where the excellent is difficult enough to promote, what hope for the second-rate? This argument is broadly my own position. There is a good case for saying that the world has enough music as it is. So add only what you think is necessary, and after long deliberation.
And yet. The feeling of producing music that is essentially surplus is itself, after all, a very old one by now. Brahms was haunted by it all his life. Yet he (cautious by the standards of his time) allowed 120 opuses to pass. We might be better to think of composing as a kind of athletic activity where the habit of producing -producing anything, as and when you can - enables you to produce well. If young Brahms had not been so productive of ‘veiled symphonies’ in the form of chamber and piano works, would the official number one have been the magnificent achievement that it is? Even the repertoire masterpieces are much more the product of incremental effort than we tend to allow.
The greatest prizes are not won by caution. And the unproductive or meagerly productive composers miss the excesses and extremes, including the extreme heights. That an artist should produce only masterpieces is one of our modern superstitions. Art in the hands of the gifted always carries a feeling of excess, of powers lavishly expended. Keats has a marvelous remark somewhere about how Shakespeare puts needlessly wonderful remarks into the mouths of minor characters. We need more abandon in our art. In a sense, we need more waste.
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