If you want an easy life, free of creative tension, neurosis and anxiety, don’t become a composer. You spend half the time waiting for the phone to ring, then when a commission finally arrives, reality kicks in: ‘Will my inspiration dry up?’; ‘Will they like what I produce?’; ‘Will I like it?’. And that is the $64,000 question. Once a new piece is ‘out there’, anything can – and often does – have play a part in the curious love-hate relationship that exists between composers and their own work.
There are many reasons for a composer wishing he or she hadn’t written a piece. In some cases they decide they simply don’t like it, but there are also sad examples of over-popularity, political hi-jacking and even fatal performances. It’s all here…
1 Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1
Powered along by an ominous ‘fate’ motive and searing emotional thrust, Rachmaninov’s First Symphony seemed to have everything going for it. But there was a problem: the St Petersburg school of composers did not care for it. Glazunov, as conductor, turned up for the 1897 premiere inebriated, Rimsky-Korsakov found it ‘disagreeable’ and Cui ranted in a review that it was fit only for ‘entertaining the creatures of Hell’. His confidence shot to pieces, Rachmaninov’s creativity was completely stifled until, three years later, a course of hypnosis helped get him back on the rails. The symphony was not performed again during his lifetime.
2 Wagner Rienzi
In contrast, Wagner’s impregnable self-belief was such that he felt he could virtually do no wrong. Yet in the case of his early opera Rienzi, whose continued popularity during his lifetime was a constant thorn in his side, he made a notable exception. Little more than a decade after its premiere, he dismissed it as ‘repugnant’, seeing it as an uninspired procession of ‘hymns, processions and a musical clash of arms’. It gained notoriety in later years as the work that reportedly inspired Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
3 Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5
Tchaikovsky expressed reservations about certain of his works anyway, but also tended to operate a strange form of reverse psychology whereby whatever piece he was working on felt at the time like his ‘worst’. This cycle of creative angst was at its most all-consuming with his ever-popular Fifth Symphony. As he composed it, Tchaikovsky became convinced his creativity had dried up and he was simply rehashing old ideas. Incredibly, after the first two performances, he considered it a complete ‘failure’ and interpreted the audiences’ enthusiastic applause as ‘charitable kindness’.
4 Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1
Bruch devoted all his creative powers to his First Violin Concerto… and then some. ‘Between 1864 and 1868 I rewrote my concerto at least half-a-dozen times,’ he despaired, having enlisted the help of two great virtuosos, Joseph Joachim and Ferdinand David, along the way. The result was an impregnable masterpiece that became a runaway international success. What Bruch hadn’t allowed for was that he would spend the rest of his life trying to rekindle its indelible passion and never quite get there – sometimes a work can be simply too successful. His greatest source of regret, however, was accepting a one-off payment for the score, thereby missing out on a fortune in royalties.
5 Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Nowhere is Liszt’s Hungarian heritage celebrated with such insatiable chutzpah as in his 19 solo piano rhapsodies. Yet it was the second of them, with its gypsy-band frolics and cimbalom-style pizzazz, that really took the world by storm. Liszt eventually had quite enough of it, and it became (along with Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo) one of two pieces his pupils were forbidden to play him on pain of death.
6 Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte
Few of Ravel’s works rival his 1899 Pavane in terms of melodic and harmonic succulence. Yet despite winning almost universal approval, Ravel felt it all too obviously betrayed the influence of his fellow composer Chabrier and was also structurally ‘rather poor’. To cap it all, he had to endure innumerable sluggish renditions of it – on one occasion he reminded a player that it was the princess who had passed away, not the pavane.
7 Beethoven Leonore/Fidelio
Beethoven was understandably foul-mouthed about his own Wellingtons Sieg, with its firing muskets and artillery effects. Yet the work that caused him the most grief – or, as he put it, ‘won me the martyr’s crown’ – was his sole opera, Leonore/Fidelio. Despite a title change, four overtures, several major structural alterations and innumerable revisions (including 18 versions of one particular aria), he was still not entirely happy with it. Perhaps opera was simply not his metier.
8 Orff Everything before Carmina Burana
Until the mid-1930s, Carl Orff’s musical style was a vast melting pot of influences, ranging from Debussy to Schoenberg. And then came his musical epiphany – a collection of medieval songs and poems that would gain immortality under the title Carmina Burana. Suddenly, everything else seemed worthless. Reinventing himself completely as a composer, Orff instructed his publisher to ‘destroy everything that I have written so far and which you’ve unfortunately published… My collected works now begin with Carmina Burana.’
9 Sibelius Symphony No. 8
The complex relationship between a composer and his music is demonstrated most poignantly in the case of Sibelius’s planned Eighth Symphony. Work began in 1926, yet over time his feelings of severe dislocation from post-war musical trends and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to satisfy expectations with a groundbreaking masterpiece combined to stifle progress. It seems at least the first movement was completed, but by 1945 he had lost all confidence in it and, in a fit of self-doubt, consigned the work to the fire.
10 Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1
Of Elgar’s five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the first has become the most popular, especially when sung to the words ‘Land and Hope of Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms. He himself initially felt extremely positive about it – composing it in 1901 had helped him out of a low mood swing, and its subsequent popularity made it a ‘nice little earner’. Yet in later life he felt uncomfortable about both its imperial swagger and the way it had come virtually to define him as a composer.
11 Shostakovich Symphony No. 9
With Shostakovich, one is often left to read between the lines. There can be little doubt that he execrated those pieces written specifically to glorify Stalinist Russia – perhaps most notoriously his cantata The Song of the Forests. But when things went seriously wrong, as in the case of his determinedly non-flag-waving Ninth Symphony (1945), the State moved in and he was forced to reel out a grovelling apology. ‘I know the Party is right,’ he bleated with withering irony. ‘I shall try again and again to create symphonic works closer to the spirit of the people.’
- The politics of Dmitri Shostakovich
- Five of the best Shostakovich conductors
- 11 important Shostakovich quotes
12 Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6
‘Hell is other people,’ wrote Sartre in 1944. When it came to his Sixth Symphony, Vaughan Williams would surely have agreed. Though he never turned against the 1947 work itself, the attempts of others to find hidden meanings within it drove him to distraction. Was he commenting on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was it a premonition of the apocalypse? ‘It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music,’ the composer sighed wearily.
13 Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals
Most composers would give their eye-teeth to compose a work as strikingly memorable and deftly ingenious as Carnival of the Animals (1886). Yet the great Frenchman Saint-Saëns was so concerned it might deflect attention away from his more serious work that, with the sole exception of ‘The Swan’, he forbade its publication, keeping the score hidden away until after his death some 35 years later.
- The best recordings of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals
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14 Lully Te Deum
Jean-Baptiste Lully served King Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, for over 30 years. He appeared almost invincible until, early in 1687, he organised a special performance of his Te Deum in celebration of the King’s recent recovery from surgery. All was going well, until Lully stabbed himself in the foot with the pointed staff he helped keep time with. Doctors advised him to have his leg amputated, but unable to face the prospect of never dancing again, he refused. Gangrene set in and he died, with the tale of his celebratory Te Deum having taken the darkest of ironic turns.
15 Albinoni Adagio for organ and strings
Albinoni was one of the finest Venetian composers of the Baroque era – second only to Vivaldi, in fact. Yet by the 1940s he was a long-forgotten figure, awaiting rediscovery. Enter Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, who claimed to have discovered an incomplete Albinoni manuscript fragment (which has never come to light), from which he ‘realised’ an anachronistically sensuous Adagio. It became a major hit, and Albinoni’s posthumous reputation became dominated by a piece that he did not even compose. One can just imagine him turning in his grave.
Top illustration by David Lyttleton
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