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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

SHOULD COMPOSERS TELL ?

by Arthur Butterworth

 

Many years ago a most distinguished and revered music critic wrote an essay under this title. It gave many musicians, especially composers, cause for reflection. The main argument being to question whether the composer needs to give an explanation for the thought processes involved in the creation of his music. Whether he ought to reveal the sources of his inspiration; and indeed all the details of how, in the end, the completed work is brought to performance.

Since music itself is a universal language, there would seem to be no need for further explanation. The great masterpieces of the past have made their message universally understood throughout times past and need no further advocacy. There is no absolute certainty as to when programme notes for recitals and concerts were first provided, but in this country at least, it seems to have been about the middle of the nineteenth century. Such analytical notes were, of course, generally provided by someone other than the composer himself. At the present time almost all concerts of any substance or importance are provided with effusive explanatory comment, and when a new work is being discussed it is, as often as not, the composer himself who is expected to provide analytical notes, or an explanation of what motivated the work’s creation.

Is this necessary ‘?

In earlier times when the style and design of music followed accepted conventions - the string quartets of Haydn, the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven - probably the listener neither needed nor expected a learned dissertation delving into deep psychological reasons for the way the music progressed. However, with the growing complexities and subtleties of musical design probably there arose a justifiable reason to introduce it with a verbal or printed explanation, and so arose the programme note.

Now this is all very well so long as such analysis can be done by a disinterested third party who can contemplate the new work objectively, but creative artists, whether painters, poets, novelists or composers, cannot invariably be relied upon to be objective about their own creations. There is a danger - rarely perceived by the creative artist himself - of indulging in a too self-centred narcissism, or morbid self-adulation; unconsciously he is tempted all-too-easily to resort to the first person singular… "I did this"... "My first opera"... "My second piano sonata"... "It seems to me"... "An idea of mine".... and so on.

However, unlike Elgar, who had the almost unique advantage of a shrewd, perceptive and enthusiastic mentor, his publisher August Jaeger, who for the greater part of the composer’s career provided the explanation and genesis of each successive new work, it is almost invariably the case that in default of such a champion, it falls to the composer himself, being the one who obviously knows more than anyone else what his new work is about, to provide an introduction or preface. If this has to be the case it behoves him to try to be as objective as possible.

Many years ago, on the occasion of the première of the First Symphony, a newspaper reviewer took me to task for being over-enthusiastic about the impact of my own work; pointing out, quite rightly, that it was not for me, the arrogant, ebullient young man to tell the listener just how ‘astonishing’ the new work was; it was for the listener to decide that for himself; he exhorted me to be more modest and objective. This was a lesson I took to heart immediately, and have gratefully remembered ever since: - "self-praise is no honour".

This has often brought about a dilemma. Over the years many people have sought, probably out of genuine curiosity, to ask how a work has been composed, so maybe one ought to try to satisfy this urge to be enlightened. As already suggested, some composers are only too eager to provide an explanation at great, and often tedious and boring length; on the other hand Sibelius was never willing to talk about his own music, but would brusquely break off an otherwise congenial conversation with his guest at the first sign of a too inquisitive prying into the workings of his inner mind. Perhaps this seems a bit hard on the honest interest of an enquirer, so that perhaps some kind of meeting the listener half-way in the matter of communication might not be inappropriate, for after all that is what the music itself is trying to achieve.

"Should composers tell?" was the original question. "Tell what?" might be an answer. Some things can be told, especially for the future guidance of student composers, critics, academics, historians: prosaic or factual details concerning musical structure, harmonic substance, historic style, orchestration, general musical texture and design. Even to some extent sources of inspiration. However, some inspiration is not capable being explained; it remains an inexplicable insight or emotion, deeply ingrained in the mind or soul of the composer, who probably even himself could not, or would not, be able to explain to another person how it has happened.

 

The Five Symphonies

Some things about the five symphonies that I’ve been able to create are generally known already: that one of the main sources of inspiration, for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, has ever been a fascination for the northlands of Europe - Scandinavia, Scotland and northern England, and the aura of things connected with the north in general: climate, weather, landscape, the natural world, other living creatures, history, language, culture, but hardly ever people themselves or human relations. Opera, that prime vehicle for expressing the nature of human passions holds virtually no interest for me at all. The music I have written is generally about uninhabited landscapes.

SYMPHONY No. 1 Op.15

First performed at the Cheltenham Festival on 19th July 1957 by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. This was begun in September 1949 but put aside for several years while the composer was an orchestral player with the Scottish National Orchestra. The aura of Scotland, more especially the far northern highlands was the genesis of this work, although the last movement, a long moto perpetuo, was, to some extent, the outcome of a long non-stop train journey in which the ceaseless movement of the train suggested the notion of a moto perpetuo in musical design. Along with this was the contemplation of the journey fleeing ever northwards, yearning to reach some indefinable and remote landscape.

SYMPHONY No. 2 Op.25

This was commissioned by the Bradford Concerts Society for the centenary of the Society’s association with the Hallé Orchestra - 1865-1965 - and to commemorate the centenaries of Sibelius and Nielsen (both of whom were born in 1865). It was first performed at the opening of the 100th season in Bradford in October 1964, by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Its three movements draw parallels with the symphonic styles of both Sibelius and Nielsen.

SYMPHONY No. 3 Op.52 ("Sinfonia Borealis")

Although no specific motive lay behind the writing of this work other than a general awareness of the north, hence the sub-title "Sinfonia Borealis", there had been, in hindsight, an awareness of wide stretches of lakes bounded by dense pine forests reaching out to the infinitely distant horizon of a northern summer night. It was first performed by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson at the Royal Northern College of Music on 30th November 1979.

SYMPHONY No. 4 Op.72

This symphony was first conceived on the high moorlands of North Yorkshire one clear, bright and cool November day in the early 1970s, although it was put aside for some time until another similar experience, in December 1981 around the sand dunes of the Moray Firth, brought it to mind again. The last movement bears a very close structural affinity with the finale of the First Symphony: they are both founded on a moto perpetuo, based on gradually changing facets of the twelve notes of the scale. It was first performed on 8th May 1986 by the BBC Philharmonic at a public concert in Manchester conducted by Bryden Thomson.

SYMPHONY No. 5 Op.115

The orchestration of this work is on a more slender, classical scale than the previous four symphonies. It is more concerned with line, shape and structure than instrumental colour. There are, for instance, only two horns in place of the usual four, and very sparing use of percussion. It was the outcome of a journey across Rannoch Moor in the central Highlands of Scotland:

....Within a ring of distant mountains, wreathed in mist and cloud, covered with the lingering snows of winter, lies the moor... a remote and desolate landscape of silent and lonely lochans, watery peat bogs, boulders and heather. An ancient burial mound under the shadow of a ruined kirkyard, where the March wind roans through a copse of gaunt and withered firs....

It was first performed on the 15th October 2003 at a Public concert in Manchester by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Jason Lai.

Arthur Butterworth

The above article first appeared in The FRMS Bulletin

 



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