Studies Necessary For Composers
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE CREATIVE FACULTY AND HIGHER MUSICAL STUDIES
No study, however ably it may be conducted, can result in producing a composer worthy of the name out of any individual who is not natively endowed with that entirely special instinct that leads one to create and invent combinations of sounds, and which in various degrees is called having ideas, having the creative faculty, and lastly, having the sacred fire, or having genius; for there is no doubt that one may have a little genius, facility, originality, gleams of genius, or have a great deal of genius. There are little geniuses and great geniuses, these words are currently employed. One may even have genius without suspecting it, although the contrary is much more frequently the case, alas ! With some it is a natural gift, as is a faculty for figures, or magnetic power with others. It even becomes a function : Saint-Saëns says of himself, without for a moment thinking of glorifying himself or being the least bit vain about it, that he " produced music as an apple-tree produces apples," simply because he was so constituted. He who is endowed with this faculty experiences, in fact, an irresistible necessity of producing, of creating music, just as the professional assassin feels the need of killing some one, or the Newfoundland dog that of dragging a drowning man out of the water.
This is why so many young composers reveal their vocation from infancy, as we have already said, by the propensity for putting their ideas down on paper, when as yet they know none of the theoretic elements except what they have been able to divine. Newfoundland pups and future assassins must also in some manner give a foretaste of their aptitudes. Buffon has said: " Nature gives the force of genius, the cast of character and the mould of heart; education only modifies the whole."
But though it is impossible for us to create such faculties at will, yet to a certain extent we can try to develop the germ by education, of course on condition that the germ, minute though it be, really exists, just as we can also try to stifle it and prevent its flowering; for, if it is possible for us to annihilate it and hinder it from manifesting itself, of which there is no doubt, it is no less certain that by setting inverse procedure in action we ought to be able to come to its assistance. It is perhaps in the examination of what would be the worst culture-liquid for the microbe of genius in its native state that we can determine with certainty first what must be avoided and then what must be sought to favour its growth and blossoming.
Among the worst conditions, we may certainly place the living in some forlorn region far from every intellectual centre, isolation, or association exclusively with common people who are totally destitute of instruction, the absence of all affection, employment in manual labour of a kind that demands no intellectual effort, ignorance of all manifestation of any art whatsoever, in a word, all that constitutes the most brutish existence. I firmly believe that a young man who has been brought up from his infancy till the age of twenty-four under such conditions, which are difficult but not impossible to find in combination, will never distress his family by manifesting a strong de-termination to devote himself to dramatic composition.
Therefore, it is the counterpoise of this brute education that must be adopted in the broadest sense if we wish to furnish the divine creative faculty with every chance to reveal and assert itself, and if we wish to provide this young grain with a good soil and the intellectual fertilizer that it needs.
To arrive at this result, it is necessary to bring to the fore, parallel with the purely musical studies, literary, scientific and philological studies, and push them as far as possible ; to read a great deal, and serious books rather than frivolous works ; to study the great poets, those near relatives of great musicians ; to know the rules of versification and prosody, so as to know how to distribute the accents and respirations in the vocal works ; to frequent the museums, to learn to admire the beautiful under all its forms, including Nature, which is not to be neglected the most, and to this end, to travel, to travel a great deal, as was the advice of Montaigne, who had not music especially in mind : " What is wonderfully good for education is to visit foreign countries for the sake of rubbing and polishing our brains against those of others." When travelling, which is much easier today than when he recommended it, we must know how to take interest in everything,—local manners, usages, traditional customs that have lasted, costumes, architecture, beauties of nature ; manifestations of art ; learn to appreciate the great painters and sculptors of each country, for one does not know much when one knows only what is done at home, even as one is not a great lord if one has never touched anything but music ; seek intellectual circles and the society of artists, and listen to their conversation, for I would not venture to affirm that to a certain extent genius is not contagious ; choose one's friends among men of high intellectual culture and take interest in their labours of whatever nature they may be ; go to the theatre often, not the lyric stage alone, but also the good theatres of tragedy, comedy and drama ; and try by every imaginable means constantly to enlarge one's mind, broaden the field of one's intelligence, and elevate one's mind ; such should be the constant aim of all young musicians who aspire to become veritable composers in the highest and best acceptation of the term.
It is quite certain that most of these notions might be considerably abridged or even completely neglected if the limit of our ambition was to write a few little light pieces of no pretensions to artistic character, such as a country dance, or the common accompaniament of a popular song. That is musical slang, which answers only to instinct and facile expression and does not require any kind of study. The maker of music must not be confounded with the composer; and here we have in mind only those who have noble aspirations and want to mount to the higher spheres of this art. Now there is not one of our counsels that will not be of use to the latter. It might be thought, for example, that the recommendation to dive deeply into literary studies and reading the poets is addressed specially to those who intend to write for the stage: it is not so at all, for there is no more profoundly philosophical style than that of the String Quartet or that of the Symphony which is derived from it, or rather which is its extension, so strongly do certain quartets appear to be reductions of symphonies and to have been conceived for the orchestra. One might think that it is not a matter of importance to have travelled much in order to produce beautiful melodies, but this is a mistake, for, without having to regard it as an indispensable condition, yet very often the contemplation of beautiful mountain scenery, the incidents of a sea-voyage, the emotion produced by a striking natural phenomenon or the memory that it leaves be-hind is the principal cause of the inspiration of a beautiful thought that reflects its grandeur, charm, or local colour.
It is a sentiment of this nature that explains the sending to Italy and Germany for three consecutive months of the winners of the Prix de Rome, whatever branch of art they may belong to, painters, sculptors, architects, or musicians. In these travels, in addition to all that people learn in travelling, they find the opportunity, as Montaigne says, to rub against other intelligent artists. Inspiration may find its source in everything and everywhere, it is therefore in the most cultivated and best furnished minds that it will most frequently find the opportunity of springing forth, with equal intensity of innate genius.
There is still another study of which I have not yet spoken, precisely because it more specially concerns those who want to make a business of the stage : it is that of history, in which I include mythology, or myths and popular legends. When one has to set a poem to music, it is not a bad thing to understand it : now, one can understand it only if one knows its characters, the reasons that induce them to act in one way rather than in another, their characters, their importance, the part they have played in History, and the period in which they lived. Moreover, it is not a bad thing to know the manners of that period so as not to turn into ridicule usages that, if they are no longer of our age, were at that time infinitely venerable, and so as not to commit anachronisms and reproduce a wrong spirit.
In the sanie way, a knowledge of Latin is absolutely necessary for those only who are attracted by religious music ; it facilitates and illuminates literary studies, nevertheless, and for this reason might be recommended to all; but if the Latin tongue is to serve as a text, it is indispensable to know it, for we cannot set to music and properly punctuate a phrase the sense of which we cannot grasp, word for word, or words in which we do not know the long or short syllables that should be accented. Therefore, in this case, it is not sufficient to know Latin, but the special rules of Latin prosody in addition.
Finally, if I add that among the studies of the sciences, of which I have spoken somewhat briefly, that of acoustics, although the least advanced of the physical sciences, is the most important of all to the composer, for whom it will open new vistas for harmony as well as for orchestration, I shall have completed the enumeration of the branches of knowledge out-side of music that seem to me to be necessary for the student composer.
All these things, if they are not studied now, will have to be returned to later. It is therefore better to furnish the mind immediately.
It may be that you will meet with musicians who have " arrived " who will tell you with the best faith in the world : " What is the use of encumbering your mind with all those studies? Nobody ever taught me all that."
With these, bring the conversation to a point of history, adroitly lead them to give their opinion of the characteristic side of a poet, ask them for the explanation of a phenomenon in acoustics, in fact, put them under a little examination, and you will very soon ac-quire the conviction that if nobody has ever taught them anything it is because they have learned everything for themselves, and that they would be strong enough to convince the doctors of this.
The love of reading, the taste for literary or scientific meetings, and conversation with learned men, in their case, by the aid of a great facility of assimilation, will have taken the place of lessons and studies properly so-called. It matters little how they have learned, or whether they have learned without effort, and without even perceiving it ; what is certain is that they know. You will never see a great artist an ignoramus.
But, someone will object, with such a programme of studies, in which even there has as yet been no mention of musical technique, how much time will it be necessary to devote to it? A whole lifetime would not suffice.—Yes, it would, by using method and not studying all this at once. Everything in its own time. After several years devoted to letters and to the exact sciences, one will proceed to philosophy and reading the great poets, and then the pupil, having learned to work, which is always the principal thing, may be left to himself to complete his studies by such reading as suits him, selecting it from the subjects already sketched and which have the most attractions for him, and are on that very account the ones that he has the most interest in investigating. As for travelling, it will find its place naturally during vacations.
The higher musical studies are very long, it cannot be denied, when we want to render them solid and base them on an indestructible rock : " Time respects nothing that has been made without him." (I know not from whom this thought of profound truth emanates, but J. J. Rousseau somewhat paradoxically manages to go even farther : " The greatest fault that we can commit in education is to be in a hurry ; the essential thing is not to gain time, but to lose it." We have already seen an analogous conviction expressed in more measured terms by Ernest Legouvé.) The composer cannot escape this inflexible rule, and as he cannot devote his whole time every day to music alone, which would be extravagant and would lead to a breakdown he will find a derivative and relative re-pose in literary labours skilfully varied.
It is even necessary for him to arrange moments of veritable recreation, play and distraction. The best games for him are those of combination, among which chess, billiards and a few others stand first ; but I insist upon chess, which trains us to reflect and foresee, and the men of which, with their various moves and the illimitable resulting complications may offer interesting analogies with the games of counterpoint and the innumerable combinations to which they give rise. Also physical exercises, such as sports, horsemanship, and especially fencing, which singularly develops the spirit of appropriateness, forces us to think quickly without the aid of words, and constitutes gymnastics of the mind at the same time as the very best of the exercises of the body. In one word, put into practice the following excellent advice : " The great secret of education is to make the exercises of the body and those of the mind always serve as relaxation to one another " (J. J. Rousseau) ; then, as a complete stop, a simple walk in the fields, in the fresh air, in accordance with the paternal advice of that good Schumann, whom I often quote, because he is, in my opinion, one of those who have best understood the subject that I am attempting to develop here, Musical Education, which must not be confounded with Musical Instruction, which I have treated in other works. Here is the text of this advice : " Often rest yourself from your musical studies by reading good poets. Take walks assiduously (I think this expression to walk assiduously absolutely charming; it so well represents the ways of the student dreamer) in the country, through the fields."
The whole thing, here as always, is to avoid fatigue, intellectual exhaustion, which we may manage so much the more easily in proportion as more variety is introduced into the studies and we do not keep constantly to the sole idea of music, always music, which must be avoided, if only for the sake of always coming back to it with new and ever greater pleasure.
And now it is no longer the pupil himself whom X am addressing but his relatives, his family and those immediately about him, and all who take any interest in him to put them on their guard against two equally dangerous rocks from which it is for them to preserve him. One is adulation and the other is indifference. The first breeds fatuity and the second entails discouragement.
It is detestable to create an atmosphere of admiration around a youthful composer and to accustom him, as is too often done, from his earliest attempts to excessive praise which he is ever ready to accept as genuine and which intoxicates him and deceives him as to his real value, and the sad results of which are first to hinder him from working and to lay up cruel deceptions for him in the future.
It is quite as bad to show nothing but coldness and indifference to his work and what it produces, for, if he sees his friends and relations take no interest in it and pay no attention to it, how can he hope for the good will and a more sympathetic reception on the part of the strangers of whom the public is composed? I once knew a talented young man who at least possessed great facility of production which had been developed by complete studies, who, after having devoted three entire months to the composition of an important work, one evening gathered together the members of his family to give them a private hearing of it. The poor fellow had got scarcely half through it when one left the room, another went to sleep and a third took up a newspaper ! He could have cried over it. The result was that he gave up composing, which is probably to be regretted.
It is necessary to know how to keep a middle course, to give evidence of interest, to show ourselves indulgent, to be always ready to listen, to give encouragement, neither to praise nor criticise unless we feel certain that we are competent in the matter, but also to avoid all enthusiasm that would not find an echo in the outside world and might lead a beginner to range himself prematurely among the misunderstood geniuses and imagine himself a victim of this art.
By the side of Genius there is Talent.
When the two are united, the artist is complete.
We must not regard talent as a diminutive of genius, that would be a very false conception. They are two things that are absolutely distinct from one another and both equally necessary to the composer, but do not resemble each other in anything.
If, as we have just said, genius is an innate faculty, a natural gift like blue eyes or black hair, talent, on the contrary, is acquired piecemeal by study and is accessible to everybody except those rare natures that are absolutely refractory to any artistic idea.
I shall make myself understood better by a comparison.
It is necessary to have some little voice in order to become a singer; but this is not enough, to learn how to sing is also necessary. The voice is the gift ; to know how to sing is what is acquired. There is not the slightest advantage in having a. beautiful voice unless we know how to use it; and to know how to sing is useless if we have not the voice.
Similarly, in order to become a composer we must first have some little inspiration ; but that does not suffice, we must also learn how to write. Inspiration is the natural gift ; to know how to write is what is acquired. There is no use in having ideas if we do not know how to take advantage of them ; and there is no use in possessing talent if we have not at least a tiny grain of genius to fertilize it with.
And, pursuing our parallel, just as we should never advise anybody who has no voice to study singing, so it is almost useless to plunge too deeply into the long and often arid studies of the composer unless we have a strong presumption that we shall find a few ideas to place at the service of our erudition.
We will not return to the elementary studies. It is thoroughly understood that before undertaking the higher studies it is necessary to have a solid foundation of solfeggio, to play the piano pretty well, and, above all, to be a good sight-reader and able to write with facility what we hear, since now it will be a question of writing no longer under a master's dictation, but under the dictation of our own imagination.
I do not fear insisting again here on the importance of the use of the piano, because it is for new reasons. When we are forming a composer, we must think of everything that will facilitate his career ; now, the piano should hold the first place here : by its means he will manage to make his productions comprehensible to an editor, or a theatrical manager, and give him an idea of it. If he is not a sufficiently good pianist for this, he will be forced to have recourse to an interpreter, which is not at all the same thing. Everybody knows the Italian proverb : traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor) ; however able and well-intentioned he may be, a third person will never succeed in conveying the thousand shadings of detail in his work as intelligently as himself, and in giving it the desired go and colouring, and penetrating the mind of the leader of the orchestra with it. It is also a good thing to be able to accompany the singers and make them rehearse, for this is the way by which he will best be able to train them and succeed in inculcating them with his own ideas, which could not be done by the best accompanist who is not imbued with them as he is. The piano is a power for him, a precious tool, an incomparable auxiliary, the handling of which he must acquire at the most favourable time, that is to say, in early youth. If not, he will always regret it.
" I have often missed the use of this instrument; it would have been useful to me under many circumstances," wrote Berlioz * at a period when his career had almost ended and when he had been able by cruel personal experience to learn what things are likely to aid or to hinder a composer's course.