Friday, October 23, 2009

Cooking with Mozart and Haydn

I made an interesting analogy in my music appreciation class the other day (it was off the cuff and on the fly, as many of my better analogies tend to be). I told the students that Haydn, as a composer, was the kind of person who could come over to your house and make a fantastic meal out of what you thought was a refrigerator and cabinets full of nothing. He would put usual things together in unusual ways, and make a feast for the imagination as well as the palate. Mozart, on the other hand, would come to your house loaded with all sorts of fresh produce (that he grew himself), and he would put those fresh ingredients (lots and lots of them) together in seemingly ordinary ways, but they would taste completely out of this world.

It would boggle the mind to even try to reproduce either of their meals.


Anonymous said...

Take ten percent inspiration, mix vigorously with ninety percent perspiration, and let stand until ready to serve.

Elaine Fine said...

I have come to understand that writing great music does not come from "perspiration." It comes from years and years of experience, careful observation, study, and the ability to separate what works and what doesn't. In the case of both Haydn and Mozart, we have superior intellect and superior taste, as well as huge amount of talent.

It is a different story for performing musicians. That's where the ninety percent work/ten percent talent ratio makes sense. Talent without very hard work for a performing musician is never an equation that gives any kind of satisfying result, but, oddly, hard work with a small amount of talent will often suffice.

Anonymous said...

Did not both Haydn and Mozart work quickly? That seems to indicate skills at a very high level. Some composition students who cannot or refuse to write quickly strikes me as a way of not exposing a lesser skill level, though this is not diplomatic to say aloud.

Elaine Fine said...

I think that compositional speed is a very relative thing, and it has a lot to do with how much time a composer has to write a particular piece of music.

As for composition students, there are also many factors at play, including intimidation (for some), and procrastination (for others). There is nothing like a little bit of serious pressure to help ideas flow, but if there are only a few ideas there in the first place, there is little hope for anything of quality at any speed.

Robert Schumann wrote his string quartets during a period of mania. He wrote them end to end, and probably didn't come up for air at all (or take much time to sleep). They are all great pieces of music. Schumann spent (I believe) three years on his piano concerto, which is also a great piece of music. Great composers work at all speeds, and in different ways from one another.

Donizetti, who was famous for writing very quickly, probably had a bunch of the best arias for his "Elixir of Love" stuck on a drawer somewhere, just waiting for the right opera to put them in. Handel did the same kind of thing with his "Messiah."

Anonymous said...

If compositional speed is a relative thing, what if anything is a constant in the act of composing?

Elaine Fine said...

What a question! I hope that someone has a better answer to it than I do.

I think that the only thing that is constant about a composer is the things that make her or him constant as a person. Personal standards, values, musical preferences, work habits, literary preferences, interpersonal activity, passions, and perhaps obsessions, but they tend to change with time.

Everything else is relative.

Unknown said...

Personally, I have never really sat down and composed anything to the extent of calling myself a composer. In fact the only thing I ever put effort into writing is cadenzas for concertos such as the Mozart in G Major for flute. My opinion on composing is that it is like writing a paper. We have all had to do it in school. Some people spend weeks and weeks putting together a great paper whereas some people can do the same quality of work in a few hours the night before it is due. (I was always jealous of those people.) In any case, it is not the time you do it in but how you feel about the final product.

Elaine Fine said...

Those people who seem to put really great papers together in a few hours have probably been doing a lot of work inside their heads for a long time.

Anyway, I think the first thing I ever wrote (aside from a song in elementary school) was a cadenza for the last movement of the Mozart D major concerto. Cadenzas are like a "gateway drug" for composing. Some people are fine with writing cadenzas, but some people catch the bug and go off in more compositional directions.