Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Composers Who Couldn't Finish What They Started"

Wow.  It's been a long time, but here goes:  An attempt to resume regular blogging.

I was motivated to write something after reading a blog post entitled:  "Top 5 Composers Who Couldn't Finish What They Started."

Having started, but not finished, several blog entries over the past 8+ months, I thought I could certainly relate to this topic, but it turned out to be not quite as advertised.

The blog's title is probably deliberately provocative — being unable to finish what one started is usually a criticism, but the fact that this was presented as a "top 5" list suggested to me the possibility that it might be about composers who were so spectacularly bad at finishing what they started that they became famous for it, or it was possibly about some "top" composers (whatever that means) that struggled with completing works at times.

I doubted it would be the former — how could composers have achieved greatness if they were chronic procrastinators? — and hoped it would be the latter, because compositional struggles are a topic near, dear, and familiar to my heart, even if the reality of them is painful.

But it was neither.

Instead it was one of those "top [any number] lists" that are rampant on the Internet these days, usually consisting of a numbered slideshow of pics with pithy descriptions/explanations for each. Some are clever, some are amusing, some are contentious, but this one was simply annoying.

The first thing you see in the blog entry is a graphic with these words: "UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES — Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar"

Okay, that's four names… Four is pretty close to five, but didn't the blog title promise five?  And those guys finished LOTS of works… Why is the anonymous blogger claiming they "couldn't finish what they started?"

Moving on, here is the text accompanying the first slide:
This week on Exploring Music we've discovered quite a few famous composers who left great works incomplete. Click on to discover our top 5 composers who didn't get the chance to finish what they started.
Whoah! Didn't get the chance? What the heck does that mean? Bullies stole their pens and manuscript paper? They were abducted by composer-hating street gangs and forcibly prevented from completing compositions? The U.S. military played deafening rock music outside their compounds 24/7, thus making composition extremely difficult? Zombies ate their brains?

Sadly, the topic turned out to be considerably less dramatic, of course; it lists five "top" composers who died before completing a particular composition. For what it's worth, I doubt there was ever a composer who didn't leave behind at least some unfinished work — sometimes, in the course of composing a work, we abandon huge chunks of music, perhaps because we decide it's not good enough, or it doesn't go in the direction we (or the commissioner) wished — but, by the logic of the blog post, this would apparently make us all "composers who couldn't finish what they started."

Beethoven, incidentally, is not on the list even though he is thought to have been working on a tenth symphony when he died.  And I like to think of him as a "top" composer.  An enterprising musicologist (Barry Cooper) has even gone so far as to "complete" (i.e., compose) Beethoven's Symphony No. 10 based on Beethoven's sketches, although it cannot be proven that these various sketches were actually intended for his 10th symphony, or, if some were, that Beethoven wouldn't have rejected them, because frankly, Cooper's "completed" work sounds pretty lame (there are recorded versions of this on YouTube, if you would like to have a listen).  But I digress…

Did you know that about 150 of Mozart's surviving works are incomplete (roughly a quarter of his total count of surviving works)? And yet, Mozart is also not on the list, even though he was working on his Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) at the time of his death (some portions had been completed, but others were fragments or sketches). He too was a "top" composer, according to many (but not Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, or Frederick Delius… Read more about his detractors in this entertaining blog post, if interested!).

There were probably many composers (perhaps most?) who died while composing something, and this may or may not be interesting — in the case of Mozart it has engendered considerable mythology (aided greatly by the play and movie, Amadeus) — but it seems a pretty silly exercise to select the "top 5" composers for whom this applied.

Okay, here we go… In case you're wondering, the listed names/unfinished works are:

     5. Mahler / Symphony No. 10 (the accompanying text cites Schoenberg, but misspells his name);
     4. Sibelius / Symphony No. 8;
     3. Elgar / Symphony No. 3;
     2. Bruckner / Symphony No. 9; and
     1. Schubert.  No specific symphony of Schubert's is cited, but here is the entire accompanying text:
Schubert composed not one, but three unfinished symphonies. Perhaps because of his battle with syphilis and his diminishing sanity, Schubert is the most famous composer of incomplete symphonies!
La!  Let's just dance merrily on Schubert's grave while dismissing him as a syphilitic crazy man!

For what it's worth, syphilis has been proposed as the most likely cause of Schubert's death, while mercury poisoning (a common treatment for syphilis at the time) has also been suggested, but, to the best of my knowledge, we do not know the actual cause of his tragic and untimely demise (age 31); his death certificate indicates typhoid fever as the cause.

The reference to Schubert's "diminishing sanity" seems a cheap shot; there are reports of the composer drifting in and out of lucidity in his final days, as illness overtook him, but it seems flippant to characterize this as "diminishing sanity." From multiple accounts, the final stages of his illness came relatively swiftly. A friend, Josef von Spaun, wrote:
"I found him ill in bed although his condition did not seem to me at all serious. He corrected my copy in bed and was glad to see me and said, 'there is really nothing the matter with me, I'm so exhausted I feel as if I were going to fall through the bed'. He was cared for most affectionately by a charming thirteen-year-old sister whom he praised very highly to me. I left him without any anxiety at all and it came as a thunderbolt when, a few days later, I heard of his death."
More to the point, Schubert wrote his 8th symphony in B minor, the "unfinished," six years before his death and wrote many other works in the intervening years, so it seems unlikely that "diminishing sanity" or "his battles with syphilis" were the causes of there being only two completed movements to this magnificent work.

Some have suggested that his 8th symphony is complete as is, a two-movement symphony, but this seems unlikely to me. He had composed most of a third movement (scherzo and trio) in short score, although very little had been orchestrated; since no previous symphony had ever finished with a scherzo movement, it seems likely that his original plan was to add a fourth and final movement, typical of classical symphonies. My best guess as to why it was never finished is that, after completing what are arguably the best two symphonic movements he would ever write, he realized that the scherzo paled by comparison, and so he set it aside while other compositional work overtook him. Possibly he intended to finish it one day, but we may never know this for sure.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that Schubert gave the manuscript to his friend, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, in his capacity as representative to the Graz Musical Society, for whom the work was written. "However, Hüttenbrenner did not show the score to the society at that time, nor did he reveal the existence of the manuscript after Schubert died in 1828, but kept it a secret for another 37 years. In 1865, when he [Hüttenbrenner] was 76 (three years before his death), Hüttenbrenner finally showed it to the conductor Johann von Herbeck, who conducted the extant two movements on 17 December 1865" (this quote from Wikipedia article, "Unfinished Symphony").

Some friend!

But enough ranting about someone else's blog post! I'm actually glad I read it, because it spurred me to write my first blog entry in eight and a half months, and I am hopeful that a more regular blogging habit will ensue.

I may write about procrastination one day, since I am rather good at it, but not just yet…


David said...

All the best as you reboot your blog. I found your site a year or so ago and subscribed. Are you trying to finish any pieces at the moment?


Michelle said...

I always take issue with these "top X lists," they're so sensationalist (and the skeptic within me always assumes they are exaggerated... is my primary exception to the rule, though even that is going downhill). It seems, though, that an attempt to make classical music and musicians and composers more "interesting" to the general public leads to wild and dramatic interpretations of their lives. It's a shame (though I did enjoy Amadeus). I'd be interested to read more about what actually spurns composers to abandon works.

Clark Ross said...

Thanks for subscribing, David! I will check out your blog as well. As for your question, I just finished a piece for tpt., tbn., and pno., and it's going to be premiered 8 days from now… Still haven't figured out a title, though!

Thanks again, and best wishes.

Clark Ross said...

Thanks for your comment as well, Michelle! Maybe I'll write a blog about some of the reasons composers leave works unfinished… There is an interesting article in Wikipedia about this: Unfinished Creative Work.

Books and Manual said...

So happy to be given a privilege to post a comment here. You have a wonderful site. Thank you for the effort to publish this.

Evan Smith said...

The thought of attempting to write something as major as a symphony hurts me both mentally and physically. Not only because I am still an incredibly amateur composer who has not surpassed 3 instruments in one work, but also because of the time consumption a symphony would take. And of course, for the composers you mentioned, there were all writing by hand! (Except for Sibelius, who I can only assume used his Notation Software.)

This brings me to the question, after infesting what I can only assume to be closer to 100 hours (maybe more, maybe less, I really have no concept of how long it takes).. into a work, how could you abandon it and not finish it? You'd think with the knowledge of theory and harmony these composers have, even if they didn't like it, they'd finish it. But to just leave pages and pages of a work without an ending, or movements baffles my mind!

Evan Harte said...

I agree with you on the whole "composers who couldn't finish what they started" thing. Yes, in certain cases, death may come between a composer and a finished score. But I agree that it probably is not because they couldn't finish it. Perhaps the composer just didn't like what they had started in one piece, or just couldn't see where it was going. As a composer myself, I can say that this happens a lot. Or, in another instance, the composer may come up with another idea while composing a first idea, for which they like the second idea a lot more. The second idea doesn't fit well with the first, so they put the first on "lay away" and start the second/new piece. Perhaps these things could have happened to the "top 5 composers who 'couldn't' finished what they started"!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I have SO MUCH unfinished work. For whatever reason, if it isn't for an assignment or anything school related, sometimes I get partway into a piece and the compelling need to finish just goes away. But I don't feel like this is necessarily a horrible thing (yet). I think there's an amount of development as a composer that happens even when I don't get to finish a piece.

I think that my process of "feeling out" the piece as it goes along lends itself to a lot of unfinished work. But leaving things unfinished for now doesn't necessarily mean they will never be completed. There is a chance that in some distant future, my little piece-babies will turn into real pieces, but there's also the possibility that they are just not meant to be. I don't try to tempt fate - I just go with it.

Robert Godin said...

Well, it's comforting to know that this is common for generally everyone. But sometimes it just takes a long time for a piece to be finished. From what I remember Dream Dance took you quite a long time to complete; and you had to call on a lot of different styles. But obviously that's not the case for every piece. Some pieces have deadlines and sometimes you can call on old drafts or pieces to help you along. Although, this idea of using material from your own old complete or incomplete works raises a question. When are pieces ever really finished?

At first glance, the question would seem easy. A piece is finished when it's printed or published, etc... But composers often quote themselves in "new" pieces all the time, sometimes it's even direct quotes. And if the pieces were played side by side they could sound just like separate movements, and you might think "My god, finish this piece already would ya."

My point is that if you're using old material finished or not, you're really just transforming it. Yes, obviously some ideas are left behind completely but a lot of the times it's not. You might even be recalling it subconsciously.

It might also be strange to think that a long time ago some composers didn't ever "finish" pieces. They would change them constantly after performances, making continuous updates and so on. And how cool would that be! No deadlines! Adding new material whenever you wanted! Being able to fix everything you didn't like. As I mentioned before, we still kind of do this but they way we go about it is very different.

All this to say... Cool Blog! Got me thinkin'.

Luke said...

This is a problem I face almost daily - I carry a small book of staff paper and jot down musical ideas that come to me throughout the day, in hopes that I can expand on them in actual compositions. This leads to a couple problems in my compositional process, the first being my music doesn't have much "glue" between ideas, and I tend to jump around a lot and cast off an idea that could use more development. I wouldn't exactly say that I have much unfinished work, but just bunch of tidbits of ideas that are uncerimoniously thrown into my compositions in hopes that I can find a way to make them one cohesive piece of music. The idea of leaving behind a portion of unfinished music is a little daunting to me simply due to the fact that some of my ideas might have some potential. Another issue that I often run into is a time constraint - I usually compose every day, and my idea book is always piling up with new material which I would love to have the time to develop more, and juggling multiple compositions at the same time can sometimes be a challenge, as they all start to sound too familiar and alike one another. It's definitely something that I need to continue to work on!

Andre McEvenue said...

I suppose a large part of not being able to complete something has to do with being forced to wait for inspiration to come in order to do the best work you can.

I find this is a very common scenario for me: I"ll set aside a large block of time to compose at the piano. To my dismay, I am unable to produce anything but rubbish in that time. Once I become aware that no good ideas are flowing, I usually decide to spend my time in a more productive way, so I'll leave. It's very odd, and very annoying, but shortly after I leave my best ideas will come floating into my head when I am halfway home on my walk from school.

Brad said...

I wouldn't call them works, but I have many thematic ideas penned and filed for future use. I completely understand shelving something to give it time (as anything good like wine, cheese and meat) to age or mature... I find coming back to something fresh gives you a renewed inspiration for completing or fixing the piece.

The title of the blog post is a product of today's view and like-starved culture. What can produce the most clicks is the most desirable, and therefore, a slightly misleading or anti-climactic title that you just had to investigate!

I think the most unfortunate thing would be to leave unfinished work behind while you still have the major ideas in your head. Part of your legacy would go with you. It's a scary thought.

Leslie Lim said...

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sarah lee said...

I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

This was an amusing and relatable topic to read about. I enjoyed this mini history lesson or rant defending Schubert’s life as a composer. It truly makes me realize that even if you are classified to be a great composer that in the end we are all human. On top of that I can’t even imagine writing for an orchestra and let alone write it all by hand. I think, by all means whatever excuse a composer may have from those days is justified to have unfinished work. Like you said, we are all bound to leave unfinished work at the end of our life and I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. It is just part of our growth as composers.

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great post! Echoing many of the comments already posted, I too possess unfinished and unused material and pieces. For me, I really like some of my unused ideas/motives, but at the time they either didn't fit with the shape of the piece they were discarded from, or I haven't been able to find a way to re-incorporate them into a new piece. For example, my piece for orchestra composed last year started out as a completely different composition and after working on it for a while, I wasn't satisfied with how it was developing. I decided to start over from scratch and wrote a new piece, but I still am really intrigued by the potential of these unused ideas. I've tried to use them in different contexts with new forms and instrumentation, but I haven't been successful with them yet. It's sometimes frustrating, and I wonder if composers such as Beethoven or Schubert ever felt that way. Thanks for your informative post Dr. Ross!

Robert Humber said...

I think it is important to remember that most of the best composers would completely scrap a lot of ideas. Time spent writing music that goes nowhere isn't time wasted as it's good practice for learning what does and doesn't work. There have been some progressions, theme and motifs that I haven't been able to capitalize over the last couple years but the ideas are still in my mind like spare ammo waiting for their turn to be relevant to what I'm writing.

This also applies to writing rock music. I've written guitar, keyboard or bass parts on my own and thought "oooohh that's nasty (in a good way of course)" but then kind of forgot about them for a while until it comes up again when I'm jamming with others. Often by the time the idea is resurfaced, it has naturally changed a bit and perhaps merged with another forgotten idea to create something I like even more. Every idea you have can work somewhere, sometime. So by writing them down, even if it doesn't materialize right then and there, you are creating just another place that a future work could go!

Josh Penney said...

Yeah these top X lists are usually pretty weird, in my opinion. They're typically 100% based on opinion, and sometimes just plain wrong. But what do I know, I just play trombone.

As for the topic of finishing a composition, it is by far the hardest part for me when writing. I find I start out strong with some pretty wicked ideas, but then I run out of ways to use them. I find then listening to music can really help with supplying more ideas, but most times I don't find that they fit with a lot of the original material. I think that further developing ideas is a skill that I will build as I compose more and more, but for the time being it is a very difficult wall to break.

Julia Millett said...

To finish a piece of music means to be completely satisfied with the outcome and final draft. I've had a hard time with this all semester in our composition class. After each class, I return to the pieces I've written with more knowledge and techniques. I continually make edits and revise my music.

Reading this blog post and all of these comments is very reassuring to know many of us have unfinished material.

Samantha Evans said...

Finishing a piece is not always easy. Sometimes a composer starts with an excellent idea that they really love, but in the end, they cannot see where it is going or how they want it to end. I believe this happens to most composers, I know it has certainly happened to me. Having an idea or motive that you really love does not always mean that it will work well with a piece. Again, this has certainly happened to me. I have also found, that as I learn more about composition, I return to my older pieces and make changes, thus what I believed to be finished becomes unfinished.
Like Julia, I do find it reassuring to know that there are many people who have unfinished material

Anaïs Siosse said...

Life is too short and it is also full of surprises, sometimes good and sometimes bad. The reality of life, the environment, the people you meet, the opportunities, the consequences… are so many settings that you cannot control. When you start to do something in life… who can tell when it is going to be "finished" provided that the word "finish" exists.

Barbie Chiu said...

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Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I have a number of "unfinished" works, as well as quite a few "unstarted" works! I find that I come up with ideas more rapidly than I can execute, which results in a creative backlog. I also struggle with wrapping up a piece; the finality of it is stressful! It always seems that there could be something better. It's for this reason that I actually appreciate due dates. While some may feel that they are antithetical to creative freedom and the creative process, I find that they force me to work at a steady pace and to be more decisive when completing a work. It seems that the quantity of work expands to fill the amount of time I have; if the timeline is open-ended the work can stretch on forever! As I finish university, I am trying to improve my ability to set and stick to my own deadlines. That way, I'll be able to start and finish more works, instead of having a press of ideas with no product to show for them!

Jack Etchegary said...

The number of Finale files that I have on my computer, each containing very very small portions of a vague idea or couple of ideas, is staggering. I think that it is very normal for composers to leave works unfinished for several reasons. For one, composers can have so many different ideas at once that sometimes it is beneficial to write down the separate ideas as they come. As a result of this, some ideas may never come to be worked on again. Another reason for leaving a work unfinished may be because a composer only has the general sense of an idea in his/her head without much actual thought-out material. This is a bit confusing to think about (I confused myself as I wrote it) but however this phenomenon has happened to me quite a few times. I will set up an ensemble, time signature, key signature and tempo, then as I begin to go about actually writing some material - nothing! Leaving a piece unfinished or in some cases barely even started is not a bad thing; I have several unfinished pieces and will most likely have many in the years to come.