Habits Of Great Composers
( Originally Published 1922 )
Certainly there is a portion of truth in this : a man is not equally disposed to compose at all times ; but it is wholly and rigorously true only for lazy and listless minds ; the others know how to help themselves, to solicit Inspiration and force her to collaborate with them when it pleases them. Ah ! upon my word, when we hold her, the vixen, we must not let her escape; we must seize her by the hair, shut ourselves in with her, refuse to open the door to our best friends and force her to empty her sack to the bottom. What proves clearly, I repeat, that we can compel our Muse to pay her visits at fixed hours, is, the fact is notorious that many great artists have their favourite hours for composing, which most often are forced upon them by the exigencies of their lives, as well as by their domestic conditions. Some are of the morning, others of the evening, as indeed are nearly all the workers in ideas : a few are of the afternoon ; indeed, everyone has his own manner of working.
Haydn was a very early riser, and yet he never worked except in full dress, in which he was like Buffon; he began by shaving himself carefully, powdered himself and put on his finger a certain ring, a sapphire, I believe, surrounded with brilliants, which had been given to him by the great Frederick, unless it was Prince Esterhazy ; that done, he shut himself up in a quiet room and wrote for several consecutive hours, five or six, without stopping.
Mozart, the gentle and pious Mozart, was sometimes less particular, and composed a little everywhere, and under all conditions. " When I feel well disposed, in good humour and given up to myself altogether, when I am alone and have a calm and satisfied mind, as, for instance, when I am travelling in a good carriage, or taking a stroll after a good meal, or in bed at night without being asleep, then it is that ideas come to me and throng into my mind. Those that please me, I retain, and even hum ; at least, so others have told me. It seems to me impossible to say whence they come to me and how they arrive; what is certain is that I cannot make them come when I wish." * Happily they came often enough without that, and pursued him even into the restaurants of Vienna, Prague and Munich, where he was very fond of playing billiards and smoking a pipe, and composing in his head.
Rossini, I can personally testify, composed almost constantly and in all ways, rarely at the piano, most often in the evening or at night, and like Mozart, often found inspiration in a carriage or post-chaise. In the irregular joltings of these vehicles, he perceived rhythm, and of these rhythms, melodies were born. There is no doubt that he would have found them in the trepidation of the railroad, if he had dared to try ; but he had such a dread of this mode of locomotion that no one was ever able to induce him to set foot in a car. Who knows whether the auto-mobile may not become a new source of inspiration?
Handel, the man of mighty conceptions, was far from despising the support of a bottle of very good wine.
Gluck preferred champagne, and composed violently gesticulating, walking up and down, and acting all his characters, often in the open air, on the lawn, in a garden.
Beethoven also undoubtedly found a powerful auxiliary to inspiration in motion and walking. Whatever the season, every day after dinner, which was at one o'clock, according to the Viennese custom, he set out for a walk, and with big strides twice made the circuit of the city of Vienna. Neither cold, nor heat, nor rain, nor hail was able to stop him. Then it was that his heat of fancy attained its full ardour. It would seem that the movement of his legs was of service to the activity of his genius. When he lived in the country, he often walked the whole day long, always alone, and in the most rural and solitary places. " He composed as he walked and never wrote a note before the piece he had in his head was entirely finished." His ideas were slowly and laboriously elaborated, and his themes, even those that presented themselves under the simplest and most natural aspect, were retouched many times by him before he gave them their definitive form, as we can see for ourselves by looking through his manuscripts collected in the house of his birth at Bonn; but when it was fixed, the composition in its entirety was grasped by his mighty intelligence. He was therefore abstracted to an extraordinary degree.
He would enter a restaurant, sit down for an instant and ask the stupefied waiter for the bill, without having ordered anything. His clumsiness was prodigious, " he usually broke everything he touched, not a single piece of furniture in his house, and any article of value less than anything else, was safe from his at-tacks, and many times his ink-pot fell into the piano by which he was working," * which, religiously pre-served in the museum of Bonn, still retains its indelible traces. Although he had always lived in the midst of the high Viennese aristocracy, in which drawing-room dances were held in high honour, " he never succeeded in dancing in time."
Hérold composed while walking, humming or singing, often in the Champs-Elysées and invariably passed his best friends by without recognizing them.
Gounod composed especially at the table, or, at least, in his head ; when he wrote, everything was absolutely clear in his brain ; his manuscripts prove this. He always had a notebook with him, or near him, in which he jotted down his ideas as they took form in his mind. This he did under all circumstances, even at table. It does not appear that he had a predilection for any special hours, but it is certain that he did not work at night, at least during the latter part of his life, but preferably after dinner and very early in the evening. In his immense and imposing work-room, he had a grand organ by Cavaillé Coll, an Erard grand piano, and a Pleyel piano-bureau which often served him as a writing-table.
Wagner liked to write standing up before a large table-desk like the cash-desks in the shops ; his scores were written without erasures, in a superb calligraphic hand, admirable for its clearness and firmness, and worthy of a professional copyist.
Berlioz, who played no instruments but the guitar, flute and flageolet, necessarily worked at the table.
Franck, who was the head of a school, scarcely composed at all till after nine o'clock in the evening, occupied as he was nearly the whole day by his lessons and other professional duties, and continued some-what far into the night. A marvellous improviser, he preferred to work at the piano ; and, as if to get him-self warmed up, he always began by playing to him-self several works by contemporary composers of his liking, among whom often figured C. V. Alkan, a musician very little known to the present generation, but whose piano works, so ingenious and solidly constructed, deserve something infinitely higher than this oblivion. He wrote first on a double piano staff, re-serving a third line for noting a few characteristic orchestral designs ; then he made a complete rough draft in pencil, retouched it minutely, and then wrote out the final score in ink.
Meyerbeer wrote in a regular manner in the evening, and his servant had orders to drag him away from the piano at the stroke of midnight.
Schumann would not admit that anyone could write otherwise than at the table. He worked a little in the morning and a little in the evening, but he ripened and combined his works for a long time before putting a note down on paper, and tried passages from them on the piano.
Mendelssohn, on the contrary, in his character as an admirable improviser, made much use of the piano, and preferred to work in the morning.
Ambroise Thomas, when a bachelor, had a tiny little hole drilled in his door at the height of his eye, through which he could see who rang; and he would hardly open to anybody except his collaborators or his favourite pupils. When you got in, about eight o'clock in the morning, on his piano, written in pen-cil, you always saw music in course of being written, which he carefully laid aside on your arrival. Hence we may suppose that he worked in the morning, and perhaps in the evening also. This is all that I know of him at that period. In his ripe manhood and in his old age, he always carried about him pads of ruled paper on which he noted the ideas that presented them-selves to his imagination. In the middle of a walk, or a conversation, or a repast with intimate friends, you saw him suddenly cease talking, his eyes became dreamy, and he took a little pad out of his pocket. As to the actual work of writing, he liked complete isolation, and much preferred the night-time, in Paris as well as in the country. He often composed in bed, but often also he got up and remained at the piano for several hours. An interesting detail is that he never passed a day without, on rising in the morning, after a few exercises of hygienic gymnastics, spending an hour on scales, exercises and studies always the same, by Moscheles, Hummel, and Chopin, his favourite composer.
Auber generally worked at night, and very late, till two or three in the morning, in order to avoid out-side noises. His old servant, Sophie, who looked after his linen, did not like barrel-organs ; one day she said to Auber in my presence : " I have a horror of barrel-organs, I much prefer the noise that you make at night with your piano." This sally made M. Auber laugh heartily.
When the exigencies of his life in society obliged him to abandon his work in the evening, he got up at five in the morning and worked till eleven.
Halévy had a table-piano that had been made for him by Pleyel. He was quite willing to converse as he orchestrated. From time to time, he would draw out his keyboard, strike a few chords on it, and then push it back like a simple drawer and continue to write.
Boieldieu also wrote at the piano.
Félicien David, not being much of a pianist, some-times sought the aid of his violin.
Adolphe Adam almost always worked at his grand piano, the right-hand side of whose keyboard was stained with innumerable splashes of ink ; he played eight, ten, or twelve bars, and then wrote them down.
Bizet worked especially in the evening and still more at night ; he often made use of a piano-bureau by Pleyel, like Gounod and Halévy.
Guiraud worked from the moment he got up, which occurred at noon at the earliest, at four o'clock at the latest ; he continued till six o'clock, stopped to dine, and again set to work till a late hour of the night. He also made use of the piano, but only as a check after writing at his table.
Léo Delibes installed his work-table beside his up-right piano in a sufficiently silent and comfortably padded attic above his apartment.
Massenet composes only in the morning, from five to nine o'clock, and at the table : at nine, his composition day is finished !
But let us not commit any indiscretions with regard to illustrious living composers, let us leave them to work in their own way.
I may say that several musicians of former days had some strange habits :
Cimarosa, for example, contrary to all the others, who wanted calm and silence, found a stimulant to his ardour in light and noise.
Paesiello never felt himself better inspired than when buried under thick coverings.
Sarti, it is said, scarcely ever composed except in profound obscurity.
Méhul took pleasure in placing upon his piano, facing him, a death's head, which leads us to believe that he also wrote at the piano, otherwise it would probably have been more agreeable to him to put it on the table.
I will not be responsible for these last; I only repeat what has been told me. Analogous and well-known eccentricities, however, have existed among many writers and masters of speech. Balzac worked only from midnight to noon; Buffon, like Haydn, as we have already said, in court dress, with lace cuffs, and powdered ; Milton wrote with pleasure only when listening to music, than which nothing can be more disturbing ; and lastly, the great preacher Bourdaloue liked to play the violin before going into the pulpit, and was never more eloquent than after having indulged in this enjoyment.
As we have seen, every master has his individual way of calling his Muse. If it is so with them, why should it not be the same for composers who are only starting? Then there are many things that we can do without her immediate help and without her constant presence : all the material details of Orchestration that depend more on talent than on genius, the thousand little retouches that are only mechanical, and what not?
We can always find means of occupying ourselves usefully while awaiting her arrival, the days on which she is late, and to see you harnessed to work very often brings her. All means are good ; the final result alone is to be considered.
The obligation of composing only in the evening is especially felt by those artists who inhabit a noisy quarter of a great city. At that hour, we have no longer to fear inopportune visits and annoyances of every kind ; the noises outside have quieted down ; we feel assured of our tranquillity, we have not even the fear of being disturbed—that fear that is almost as perturbative as the disturbance itself. The composer has as much need of calm as the painter of sunlight effects : the painter takes advantage of the hours that the sun is good enough to grant him ; the musician should know how to profit by isolating himself during the silent hours, and drive out of his mind, if he can, all ideas that are foreign to his art, every cause of distraction, torment or care. " Preoccupation is the death of occupation," says Gounod, whose fine thoughts, always so profound, cannot be too much meditated upon. We must know how to drive it away at all costs and force ourselves to concentrate our whole attention on the goal to be attained. It is perhaps for this reason even more than merely for the sake of destroying the material noises coming from outside, that we see several composers (Bizet, Guiraud, Ambroise Thomas, Franck) make use of the piano as a sort of appetizer for the mind, disengaging the latter for a moment from the cares of existence, and thus putting aside the causes that disturb the conception of the idea.
It goes without saying that the works conceived with a- view to virtuosity, such as the Concertos, and the great or little pieces for an instrument treated in solo, gain greatly by being written when we have at hand the instrument for which they are intended, if we know how to play it. The composer who is a violinist has no right to write a passage without trying its effect ; the composer writing for the piano should therefore naturally like to put his piece together by playing it ; but however this may be, these should also be capable of composing whatever it may be without the aid of any instrument at all, if that is necessary, as soon as they can obtain absolute silence around them, unless they are not complete artists, but virtuoso-composers. " The fingers should execute what the mind has conceived ; not the inverse. . . . If music proceeds from your inner meaning, if you have felt it, it will have the same effect on others."
For those, however, who prefer to compose at the piano, which does not hinder them from first ripening their ideas by meditation, a valuable auxiliary would be a keyboard-register, automatically inscribing in some manner or other, but easy to read and transcribe, all that is confided to it. Many interesting attempts in this direction have been made already, and it may be confidently presumed that in the near future some-body will succeed in creating a really practical type. Those that have so far been constructed aim especially at automatic repetition by means of a manual or clockwork movement, which gives them some likeness to a mechanical piano (one can obtain a result of the same nature with a good phonograph that does not too greatly disfigure the timbre); what would be far more useful than this repetition for an improvizing pianist, is the more or less conventional graphic notation of his idea by a series of dots and dashes traced on an endless band provided with a staff and unrolling on a cylinder placed beneath the keyboard while being played ; so that by taking this band off the apparatus he can re-read his entire improvization, which he will then only have to transcribe, at the same time adding those modifications and ameliorations resulting from meditation.
All who have heard Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Mendelssohn improvize are unanimous in affirming that it was then, when relieved from the material shackles of writing and given up to their whole spontaneity, that they were most moving, and often quite different from what they were in the works over which they had reflected. This will not astonish anybody who has heard any of the great organist-improvizers of the present day whose instantaneous productions are sometimes admirable, and superior in vital intensity to anything that they could have written in the silence of the cabinet. Now, it frequently happens that young composers possess such an organization that the slowness of writing causes them to lose the thread of their ideas, and that not having time to write down all that they think, they let part of it escape, or disfigure it.
It is the same with them as with certain great orators of the bar, the church, or parliament, whose eloquence never rises so high as in the fire of improvization, and who never find expression so happy, words so exact, metaphors so bold and appropriate, when they want to write their discourse. For these, there is stenography ; but no one has yet found stenography for music ; it is probable even that this will never be found unless it is merely melodic, which might well be useful, but it would be insufficient.
And since we have been led to speak of improvization, that individual and seductive art, let us say in passing that people have a very small and incomplete idea of it when they imagine that it consists merely in yielding oneself up to the chance of inspiration, by letting the fingers run and wander at random over the keyboard! Where the mind does not work there can never be any manifestation of art, but a simple act of routine, despicable by its very unconscionableness and by its automatism and one which does not deserve to attract attention.
Never, oh never, does an improvizer worthy of the name embark without knowing in advance what he wants to say, what form as a whole his piece will have, and a general plan perfectly skeletonized in its broad lines. A few insignificant or imperceptible details will alone be left to momentary caprice, to spontaneity, to certain mechanical or unconscious impulses, a sort of finger habit which seems to exclude errors of style, and this is the very least that is left to chance, if indeed we may thus designate the result of prodigious ability and an inexplicable faculty that has almost become an instinct. It would be unpardonable for him who possesses it not to cultivate it, since it demands no new study beyond those that we have already indicated, and since the special qualities that it brings into play namely, appropriateness, sang-froid and presence of mind are those which are developed most easily by frequent practice, by habit and by will.
When the question is one of improvization or written composition, whatever may be the manner of composing that any one has adopted because it is easiest for him or conforms best to his nature, it must never be forgotten that emotion should always preside over the conception of every work of art, and that to communicate this emotion to others, and make them share in it, is the supreme goal to which the truly great artist should perpetually tend.
This thought is marvellously well expressed by two strong and very different minds, who at least on this point were in agreement, Lamennais and Victor Cousin : " If sound possesses of itself an expressive power, this power should be applied and brought into play by the artist, since it is nothing but his instrument" (Lamennais), " The problem of art is to reach the soul through the body " (V. Cousin) ; which clearly means that to write music without the desire of moving or interesting is like talking without saying anything, which is the most tiresome thing in the world.
And this is true whatever may be the nature of the work, its elevation or its futility, its length or its brevity, some feeling must always emanate from it, and consequently must have been put into it. Its form and importance are of little consequence : Beethoven is quite as moving in his Sonatas as in his Symphonies ; Schubert rises to a touching eloquence in the shortest of his melodies, certain of which do not exceed eight bars ; Chopin's Nocturnes are true poems, on the same level with his Ballades and Scherzos; and Boileau's celebrated verse, " A faultless sonnet is worth as much as a long poem," may be just as well applied to music.
Therefore, there are few great composers who have not taken delight in producing, if only to rest them-selves after their more highly developed works, short pieces, to which the conciseness of the style lends an additional charm. Neither should the student-composer disdain them, for this will contribute towards making his talent more flexible by teaching him that quality, as rare as it is precious, of being able to ex-press himself at once briefly and completely. Perhaps indeed he will feel himself led to adopt for the generality of his productions this more intimate form in which the thought, by rendering itself precise, becomes condensed, which makes the composition more easily understood by the listener. He should not struggle against this inclination and regard this as an inferior kind of composition : it is not the length of a piece that constitutes its beauty; neither is it its complication. Far from that, the most original ideas, the most ingenious and the most interesting operations may often find a place in simple and short pieces. Beethoven with his Sonatinas, Schumann with his Album à la Jeunnesse, Mendelssohn in his admirable Songs without Words, Gade in his Noël, Bizet in his Jeux d'en f ants, Gounod, Massenet, Delibes, and Schumann in their melodies, the colossal John Sebastian Bach in his Inventions in two or three parts, and many others have proved this.
Everybody knows the pretty story of Horace Ver-net's horse : He was engaged by a very rich English sportsman to paint the picture of a very beautiful horse in which its owner very justly took great pride. He had the animal brought to his yard once, twice—ten times. Several weeks later, he requested the Englishman to come to his studio and see the result. Enthusiasm of the latter, who was ecstatic over the perfection of the work, the perfect resemblance and the lifelike feeling that the artist had fixed upon the canvas, and which rendered this picture a marvellous work of art, really a perfect masterpiece ! And he asked the price.
" Fifty thousand francs," said Horace Vernet.
Stupefaction of the sportsman ! " What, fifty thousand francs? But you have only worked ten times on this picture."
" Do not deceive yourself, my lord," the great painter replied, as coldly as wittily, " I have worked more than forty years on your horse."
And he was right. And this reply contains a deep lesson. In the work of an artist, of whatever kind, are reflected all his qualities, all his talent acquired so laboriously, all his knowledge and the experience of his entire life.
If all painters had wished to paint only historical pictures, we should have had no Teniers nor Gerard Dows ; and we have never heard it said. that Meissonier's pictures lose any of their value because of being contained in a very small frame. Everyone should know how to choose the genre or genres for which he is best adapted, and keep to them, always keeping perfection in view. If it is true that " art is acquired by study and practice," as d'Alembert says, it seems good and wise, however, not to squander our efforts in too many different fields, particularly at first ; we run the risk of not excelling in any one of them. Rare are such geniuses as Mozart and Saint-Saëns, who can attack victoriously every manifestation of musical thought.