Honegger on Composition

About a week ago, I attended a performance of Arthur Honegger’s third symphony, the “Liturgique” and I was drawn to this little quote in the program notes: “Composing is not a profession. It is a mania — a harmless madness.”

I think that’s bang on the money, so I dug up its source, a little book called I am a Composer, and I thought I’d share some other choice quotations. Honegger is refreshingly realistic (cynical, even) in his perspective about life as a composer in the modern age (1952), and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Let’s start here:

The profession of composer of music offers the peculiarity of being the activity and the preoccupation of a man who exerts himself to manufacture a product which no one is eager to consume. I might even compare it to the manufacture of top hats, button shoes, and whalebone corsets. The contemporary composer is therefore a sort of intruder who persists in stubbornly trying to impose himself at a banquet to which he has not been invited.

And now onto the process of composition itself, this masterly metaphor:

To be as frank as possible, a great share of my work eludes my conscious will. To write music is to raise a ladder without a wall to lean it against. There is no scaffolding: the building under construction is held in balance only by the miracle of a kind of internal logic, an innate sense of proportion. I am at once the architect and the spectator of my own work: I work and I judge. 

When an unforeseen obstacle arrests me, I leave my construction and sit in the seat of the listener, saying to myself: “After having heard the foregoing, what shall I hope for that will give me, if not the thrill of genius, at least the impression of success? What, logically, must happen to give me satisfaction?” And I try to find the next step, not the banal formula which would occur to everyone, but, on the contrary, an element of freshness, a rebound of interest. Step by step, following this method, my score is accomplished. 

This is the funniest one I’ve come across so far, where he talks about his work as a professor of composition:

My class always begins — and you can confirm this — with a little speech of which this is roughly the substance:

“Gentlemen, do you sincerely wish to become composers of music? Have you reflected carefully on what awaits you? If you write music, you will not be paid and you will not earn a living. If your father can afford to support you, then nothing prevents you from putting black marks on paper. You will learn that, wherever you go, what you value above all other things will have but a secondary importance for others; they will show no impatience to discover you and your sonata. Your only excuse is to write honestly the music that you wish to express, to bring to it all the pains, all the knowledge, which a man of probity would give to the most serious actions of his life. Suppose for a single moment that you thirty-seven men are — I do not say men of genius, but of talent — and that each one writes in a single year one worhty composition which deserves to be produced; that would unloose a veritable catastrophe in the musical world.”

And finally, the opening quote fleshed out into its full paragraph:

Composing is not a profession. It is a mania — a harmless madness, because it is rare to see an unknown composer give way to violent demonstrations and disturbances of the public peace, unless in a concert hall at the performance of a rival’s work. More often he is preoccupied, distraught, saddened by the proofs of incomprehension on the part of his contemporaries. If he is not ridiculous because of his arrogance and presumption, he will be as timid as a person afflicted by some abnormality which, it so happens, is not constantly on exhibition for all to see. And there you are!

Le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose!

This post is slightly expanded from a column in my weekly Substack newsletter, Tone Prose.