Posts By: willcwhite

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.


How copyright law promotes bad behavior in the world of classical music

This post is slightly adapted from an edition of my newsletter, Tone Prose. Subscribe for more ranting and raving!

I’ve got a concert coming up on April 6, 2024 which will feature the premiere of my new opera-oratorio Cassandra, but the program is equally exciting because it will bring me once again into collaboration with the great young pianist Joseph Vaz. Joey’s going to play Rhapsody in Blue, and having received the performance materials for this work, I’m struck by outrage, and I wish to make it known!

The publisher of Rhapsody in Blue, European-American Music, has abused its copyright privileges to offer a substandard product to interpreters of this work, and thus made the correct execution and performance of Gershwin’s music much more challenging than it should be. And while I (Will) am happy to name and shame EAM, they are simply representative of the industry-wide malfeasance. The real problem though, is the law itself.

What is Copyright?

Essentially, a copyright is a monopoly on a piece of intellectual property, such as a book, movie, recording, or, in the present case, a piece of music.

Now I don’t think you have to be the most rapacious libertarian capitalist in the world to reach the conclusion that monopolies are bad. But you don’t have to be a pinko commie tool to think that a limited monopoly granted to an artist might be good. After all, if you create an original work, shouldn’t you get some period of exclusivity in which to exploit your creation?

The first copyright law in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1790, did just that: it gave authors exclusivity on their works for a period of 14 years with an optional 14 year extension. That, I will grant, is a reasonable way of doing things. Of course, if you create a successful bit of IP, you’ll want to exploit it for as long as possible, so as corporations came on the scene and lobbyists started doing their dirty work, the original copyright provisions got distended to grossly disproportionate forms, culminating in the famous “Sonny Bono” Act of 1998. Cui bono? Sonny!

[A brief aside: don’t let Sonny Bono’s cameo on The Golden Girls fool you — he was one bad hombre. Aside from his rotten-to-the-core copyright extension act designed to protect Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse, he was also a raging NIMBY exclusionist zoning champion as mayor of Palm Springs, and gave Newt Gingrich PR advice.]

The Baroque State of U.S. Copyright Law

In the US, we are currently operating under a dual copyright regime:

  1. For works created prior to 1978, the maximum copyright duration is 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.
  2. For works created in or after 1978, the maximum copyright duration is “life of the author” + 70 years.

As to the question of Rhapsody in Blue, attentive readers of Listener Laurie’s comment will have noted that 2024 is the centennial of this great masterpiece of symphonic jazz. So, you might ask yourself, shouldn’t the music be in the public domain? Can’t you just download the parts from the Internet Music Score Library Project? Why does a publisher have to be involved at all?

Enter Ferde Grofé

First thing first: the original score of Rhapsody in Blue *is* in the public domain, and you *can* download it from imslp. The problem is, the original version of Rhapsody in Blue isn’t the version that anyone actually plays.

Well, it’s not *no one* who plays it — in fact, there’s a very cool recording of the original version, scored for Paul Whiteman’s dance band in 1924, performed by George Gershwin himself on a piano roll, with MTT conducting. (The tempi are nuts.) But Gershwin didn’t *orchestrate* the Rhapsody. That job was left to American composer Ferde Grofé (of “On the Trail” fame). Grofé revised and expanded this version in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1942 that he scored it for a normally-constituted symphony orchestra, and that’s now the version that “everyone” plays.

Material Interests

This 1942 version of Rhapsody in Blue remains under copyright until 2038. Which means that the publisher, European-American Music, retains a monopoly on the performing materials for another 14 years.

As we all know, the problem with a monopoly is that the monopolizer has no incentive to provide their customer with a decent product or service, and that’s exactly the problem here. First off, I placed Harmonia’s rental order for these materials back in May of 2023. I signed a contract that stated exactly when the sheet music was to arrive. That date came and went, and when I contacted EAM, it turned out they had lost track of the order.

Then things got worse: EAM sent me a freshly printed set of parts. These parts were engraved in 1942 using 1942 technology and 1942 Broadway notational conventions. When you first glance at the music on the page, it doesn’t look too shabby. But take a closer look:

Notice, for example, that after the first line of music, the clef is never re-printed, and neither is the key signature. That’s very poor indeed. The problems don’t stop there though: these parts were written so that the piece could be performed with any hackneyed, ill-constituted civic band, and so the parts are laden with cues to such an extent that they are almost impossible to read. This tendency reaches its ne plus ultra in the first violin part, which is clearly designed as a quasi conductor’s score for concertmasters who are also the leaders of their bands.


And now for the pièce de résistance: EAM doesn’t just sent the parts, they also send a printout of the 30-page errata list of corrections that need to be marked into all the parts.

Just think about this for a second: the parts were engraved in 1942. This errata list was compiled in 1990. That means that the publisher has had 34 years during which they could have re-engraved the piece so as to incorporate all these corrections.

But why would they? That might cost… oh a few thousand bucks I guess? It’s so much easier to make the renters of this material do the work themselves (as I did.) Who are the renters going to complain to? What competitor are they going to turn to? There is none — that’s the whole point of a monopoly!

Bad Actors, Bad Incentives

This whole thing reminds me of the problem with drivers.

Bad drivers should certainly be held to account for speeding and running stop signs. It’s antisocial behavior that can easily get people hurt or killed. But the real criminals are the transportation engineers and urban planners who have designed the road infrastructure that encourages speeding. The real criminals are the lobbyists who have been working on behalf of the auto manufacturers for a century to ensure that America is designed for car dependence. The real criminals are the lawmakers and politicians who have created a permissive legal structure where killing someone with a private automobile isn’t even considered a case of criminal conduct.

Preaching, Practicing

I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention that I, as a publisher of my own music, try to do everything that EAM doesn’t. First off, for the most part, I sell rather than rent. People can buy my music directly from this web site, print out their own copies (in whatever numbers they like) and perform it to their heart’s content. I also try very hard to make sure that the editions offered on this site are free from mistakes (though I am convinced it is a metaphysical impossibility to get them all.)

An Hour of Newly Recorded Music

Well, not quite an hour, but pretty close.

First up, Clarinet Quintet, op. 55, a piece that I wrote as a birthday gift for my college buddy Jeremy. It was commissioned by his siblings for his fortieth birthday. The birthday gift was the first movement. The second, third, and fourth movements were gravy because I wanted to make it into a full work. (Much the same thing happened with my trio for horn, viola, and piano.)

What was fun about this project was that I had the first movement premiered (with Jeremy in the audience) in Seattle by some friends over the summer. Hearing the first movement clarified for me what I wanted to do with the rest of the piece, and the latter movements were composed very quickly.

The demo recording was made in Portland with musicians from the Oregon Symphony, most notably their principal clarinetist, James Shields. It was a very fun day featuring a huge assortment of baked goods from Shoofly Vegan Bakery. God I miss Portland’s vegan food scene. Seattle doesn’t hold a candle.

Next up, 11 Bagatelles, op. 56 for solo piano. I also composed these in 2023, sporadically during the months of April through July (between writing the first movement of the Clarinet Quintet and the later movements.) They were written for my great piano muse Joseph Vaz.

Joey started agitating for more piano music in the lead-up to the highly successful New York premiere of the piano sonata I wrote for him. I thought he was crazy to ask for more. I don’t think of myself as a person who has facility writing for the piano, and he’s given me all sorts of guff about not writing “pianistically.” And yet, he kept asking, so I kept writing. (He’s asked for even more!!)

Joseph recorded these tracks in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. It was a great weekend; I came to town not only for the recording, but also to see Here We Are, the new Sondheim show. The night after the recording I went and screamed my heart out at Uncle Charlie’s with my friend Tim, as I am wont to do.

Last up is an older work, or, shall we say, a piece that has been in development for several years now, my Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, when I first wrote this, large chunks of it were extremely difficult, maybe unplayable; I should have had a better sense of the cello’s capabilities given my heritage as a violist.

I’d been trying to interest cellists in this piece for a while, but I think they maintained a polite distance because of the challenges. What I really needed was a cellist to workshop the piece with me, and my friend Ryan Farris finally stepped up to the plate this past summer.

We worked on the piece over a the course of a few months, making all sorts of adjustments and re-writes and recorded it in August. I give Ryan all the thanks and credit in the world for pulling off what he did, but I’m still planning to make an alternate arrangement for two cellos. I think it will be a more successful work.

I have to admit though that I love hearing the struggle of the piece in its current incarnation. It’s craggy and austere, and part of me thinks I should just let it exist as the stunted, gnarled oak that it is currently.

Clarinet Quintet, op. 55

This piece was a 40th birthday commission for my friend Jeremy Rosenberg, a fellow music major in the class of 2005 at the University of Chicago. It was commissioned by Jeremy’s siblings Michael and Shoshana. Jeremy and I go way back, so there was a lot of personal material to include in this piece.

As a starting point, I wanted somehow to reflect on my college days. I considered re-working a string quartet that I wrote in my sophomore year, but upon reviewing it, I thought it was total garbage. However, I thought I could do something with the main motivic idea. I played around with it, but it only ended up appearing in a disguised form in one bar of the introduction.

The timing of this commission — and its accompanied walk down memory lane — was interesting, because I began writing it right around the time that my former teacher, Easley Blackwood, died in January 2023. Easley’s death kindled many thoughts and feelings, but as a sort of backhanded way of honoring him, I based a couple of the principal themes in this piece on the circle of fifths, which he always said was “the last refuge of the damned,” compositionally.

Jeremy and I really clicked in college when we realized that we were the only two people who knew, cared about, and loved Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, so I quoted one of the motives from that piece in the quintet.

Before this piece, I had been keen to write a minuet for some time, and I thought this would be a nice opportunity.

Jeremy is a big klezmer fan, hence the third movement. I grew up going to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, so it came somewhat easily to me, and Jeremy said I had carte blanche to culturally appropriate from his heritage.

The final movement is a sonata-rondo form with an ostinato that moves through the string parts, and I’m very proud of how cleverly I was able to make it work while still creating variety in the harmony and recalling music from the previous movements.

11 Bagatelles, op. 56

I wrote this set of short pieces for my friend-muse-collaborator Joseph Vaz, at his behest. Joey was also the instigator / dedicatee of my piano sonata, and after he had performed and recorded that piece several times, he came asking for more.

Why a set of eleven bagatelles? Joey was very specific in this regard. He wanted short pieces as opposed to another big work. It so happens that eleven is his lucky number, and it didn’t hurt that Beethoven’s op. 119 is a set of eleven bagatelles.

The first step in writing these pieces was to figure out just what a bagatelle was. I’ll be honest, I had only the vaguest conception. It turns out that basically nobody knows (per Wikipedia: “A bagatelle is a short piece of music, typically for the piano, and usually of a light, mellow character.”) That meant that a bagatelle could be anything I wanted, but I had to figure it out myself.

I came up with a Theory of Bagatelles:

As is so often the case with my music, I mostly followed this set of rules, but I mostly broke all of them at some point. I guess the big self-imposed no-no that I broke was that the pieces are all supposed to be self-sufficient, because I ended up making the last bagatelle a gloss on the first bagatelle. What can I say — I’m a cyclical girl at heart. 💁‍♀️

Other rules broken: they’re all too hard for me to play (except nos. 4 and 6), I did used received dance forms (the Poulencian waltz no. 8 — but I made up for this by writing an anti-waltz for no. 9). Many of them are spunky and spontaneous, but many are not.

I didn’t get around to including any African Pianism techniques (an academic specialty of Joseph’s) but I did include an homage to my favorite Tuvan folk group (as if I knew more than one) Huun-Huur-Tu (no. 7.) Number 10 is an ode, naturally, to Sondheim. No. 4 is an arrangement of the Basque folk song “Ezin ahaztu” in honor of Joey’s last name (which may reveal some sort of partial heritage.)

None of them are exactly programmatic, but no. 6 includes the instruction “con la dolcezza semplice del giovane amore in una notte d’estate illuminata da stelle e lucciole” (“with the simple sweetness of young love on a summer night illuminated by stars and fireflies”) and no. 11 was inspired by the feeling of freedom I felt at being done with a particularly onerous task.

Nos. 1 and 2 feature trick endings, and I considered doing the same for the rest, but I realized that would get tiresome.