Composition: Music and Prose

Last night, I heard, for the first time, evidence of the shared skills of composers and authors.  My wife and I went to a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert which featured Wagner’s Tannháuser Overture, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.  Pierre Vallet was the conductor and Elizabeth Sombart was the pianist.  For me the music got better as the evening progressed.  I should explain that I am no music critic; I never played an instrument, and I can’t really read music, although I sang first tenor and then baritone in two different small singing groups in high school and college.

The Wagner piece was enjoyable, but it didn’t really engage me.  I kept thinking of Nietzsche’s criticism of Wagner: that he became an insufferable egotist.  Elizabeth Sombart’s recital of Chopin was very impressive.   I sat there and thought: ‘How wonderful it must be to be able to play like that!’  And Chopin’s music was lovely.  But it was Beethoven’s Fourth that really caught my attention.  I’ve heard it played at least a dozen times before, but, until last night, never by a live orchestra.

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Composer of the Fourth Symphony

The music was captivating, and I watched the musicians play with what seemed like gusto.  I began to think about the composition of the music to which I was listening  This was a very clever composer: he keeps his audience fully engaged.  And I began to identify aspects of the music that I felt bore similarities to the composition of good prose.

  • The piece has a unity to it.  It was clearly the work of one composer: it was telling one musical story in four movements.  Each movement shared musical themes and techniques with the others, but one felt a progression in the movements.  At times, I have felt that a particular piece of classical music could have been serially composed by two or more people.
  • There was plenty of emotion.  Sometimes a flute and first violins would pick out a sweet and gentle theme.  At other times the timpani, brass and eight basses would thunder out in rage.  There was love, there was anger, there was joy and wonder.
  • There was plenty of suspense.  The first movement begins with a dark, gloomy section: What is this about?  But gradually it gives way to a bright, cheerful theme: Will this continue?  Whenever a new theme was introduced, it would begin to tease, and one would wonder what is coming?  The techniques for generating suspense varied: Pianissimo building to Forte, or the other way ’round, or themes evolving in variations; or sudden shifts in the instruments; or instruments playing ascending scales.
  • There was a lot of conversation.  For, example the violins would start a theme which would be picked up and changed by the cellos; the violins would respond with the changed theme and change it further.
  • There were changes in pace.  Sometimes the music was slowly deliberate: in no hurry; at other times, it was in a sensational rush, particularly in the fourth movement.

With this insight, perhaps I will enjoy classical music more than I have in the past.  And I have always enjoyed going to concerts.

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