Quadrant Music

Fingerprints of Musical Genius

How do we know that a musical composition is truly great? Can we distinguish genius, originality, or inspiration, from competent workmanship, skilful pastiche, or outright fraud? The recent Ed Sheeran case, about the sources of his song “Thinking Out Loud”, raised such questions as what is distinctive as against common-practice material, and what the evidence is of intent to pass off another’s work. After all, most Western music consists of just twelve notes, artfully arranged across a small range of rhythms, registers, textures and forms.

The music history “survey” courses of traditional conservatoires introduce the budding musician to these creative distinctions but in a more cultural, aesthetic, sometimes hagiographic, context. The student probes what makes a Beethoven symphony different, perhaps more skilful, than one by Schumann, or a Wagner opera more original, though perhaps not inherently better, than, say, one by Puccini or Verdi.

Quadrant Music will be a fixture in future editions.
Click here to subscribe

Highly analytical study of music scores pushes these skills of discrimination more technically: how exactly are Bartók’s settings of folk music more daring than those of Kodály, or how well-justified is the claim that Bach’s final, perhaps unfinished, work qualifies as the capstone to his prodigious career, as Daniel Herscovitch demonstrated in “Decoding the Music Masterpieces: Bach’s The Art of Fugue” (2017) on ABC Radio National.

Most music scores are important evidence in the greatness stakes, but they barely scratch the surface of questions about how great, or not-so-great, works came into existence in the first place. Published scores purport to be a definitive endpoint to a series of creative acts that often spread over years or decades, even if a rare genius, such as Mozart, might scribble down a brilliant masterwork over a weekend and still have time for billiards.

Hence, over the last couple of centuries, following the lead of the literary world, there emerged the notion of complete critical editions of the compositions of eminent composers, with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart editions being some of the earliest. Their aim was for documentary, rather than performing, volumes based upon the close study of the various stages of a work’s emergence, from earliest memos of themes and motives, through more developed sketches or movement drafts, to “continuity” manuscripts or “piano scores” that were then fleshed out for instrumental or vocal ensembles. Along the way meticulous attention was paid to the variation, evolution or rejection of earlier ideas, for instance in showing how a bland rhythmic snatch might become a generative force of dozens or hundreds of bars of sublime music.

Critical editions, then, in the hands of specialist, forensic editors provide snapshots of an individual work’s course from rough sketch towards coherent score. This path can often be followed into the preparation of instrumental parts, and, after a work’s premiere, the finalisation, or fixing, of the work in its first printed score. From about 1945 these critical editions tended increasingly to include detailed chronologies or essays outlining how and when composers shaped their ideas, with reference to what they wrote in letters, are reported to have musically advised others, or themselves performed in rehearsal or concert.

This post-war rejuvenation of the complete editions of classical-romantic composers was followed, from the mid-1960s, by plans for such editions for younger generations of eminent composers: Schoenberg, and then Debussy, Bartók and Elgar. This led Lewis Lockwood of Harvard, in 1985, to inaugurate the augustly-titled Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure series. Published by Oxford University Press, volumes in the series tapped this growing forensic expertise among musicologists and performers, in mapping and critiquing the formative background of an individual “great” work.

The Genesis series’ earliest volumes centred on works from within the so-called common-practice era of tonal music of the Western tradition, in short, the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Later, it pursued this era’s legacy well into the twentieth century, including some works of an atonal, chance or improvisatory nature. In doing so, it expanded to include more works from beyond the Austro-Germanic heartland in Europe and from America. Each volume still documented the track of the chosen work from conception to birth, but, with the introduction of Interpretation also into the series’ title, most later volumes extended into a work’s post-natal circumstance, such as its early reception by players, conductors, audiences and critics, and associated performance issues.

In 1997 I assumed the series editorship of this augmented Genesis series, and for the last quarter-century have been the recipient of countless insights into what makes some works of the Western repertory truly great, and how that greatness might have come about. My pleasure in this knowledge comes not just from the series’ volumes, with nearly twenty-five titles now published or contracted, but also from the couple of hundred submitted manuscripts, proposals or concepts that we ultimately did not accept for this flagship Oxford series. This series offers some valuable perspectives on five particular issues.

Definitive form. A surprising number of important works lack a commonly agreed, definitive form. This is because even a composition’s premiere or publication does not stop its composer from revising, or decomposing, the work. These interventions can range from tinkering at the edges, to rewriting major themes, cutting out whole movements, adapting the work for a different collection of instruments, or even withdrawing or destroying all traces of it, through self-recognition of youthful naivety, aesthetic mediocrity, or senile meandering.

Individual editors, or entire critical-edition projects, may find some solution in adopting one of two courses: to identify an original, or Urtext, form, in the hope that earlier is better, through being purest in conception and relatively uncorrupted; or to identify the last version left by the composer, the Fassung letzter Hand, in the hope that it reflects this mortal’s “final word”, and might thereby be considered most definitive. Whether definitive or not, later changes might not make the work “better”. As Philip Gossett concluded in his Genesis series study of Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena: “I do not think these ultimate solutions are always best, but Donizetti was not sitting as an objective judge.” And nor, of course, are we.

Neither approach is comfortably satisfactory because the often tawdry trail of a work’s life after birth pursues many curious byways: what composers said rather than what they actually managed to do in score revisions; what the instrumental parts show, in contrast to the evidence of the conductor’s score, or the first edition versus a later edition, pocket score, or poorly read proofs; what was “corrected” in the hand of a pupil or amanuensis; or where changes are made, which, by analogy, are also needed (but not shown) elsewhere. Then there are eminents such as Bruckner, who worried several of his symphonies, literally, to death. His Fourth Symphony, for instance, can be considered to have at least three definitive forms, through changes scattered over nearly two decades. Hence, three forms of this symphony will appear, as very non-identical triplets, in the new Bruckner critical edition.

Incomplete works. Most composers have incomplete works in their bottom drawer; some have needed more than one drawer. How Genesis scholars should account for these abandoned, but kept, curiosities, is a vexing issue often also involving the composer’s heirs, archival guardians, and lawyers. Even though not proceeded with, such unsuccessful attempts often prove crucial to understanding major points of creative change in a composer’s output.

Equally problematic are instances where the composer dies in a later stage of composing a work, as with Mozart’s Requiem, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, Puccini’s Turandot, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Berg’s Lulu and Bartók’s Viola Concerto. From the viewpoint of Genesis these induced—sometimes premature, sometimes overdue—births, in the hands of others, make particularly intriguing reading, and highlight the evidentiary importance of sketch transcriptions, as the competing contributions of composer and completer are meticulously evaluated.

As Donald Maurice outlined in his Genesis book about Bartók’s posthumous concerto, there was debate about nearly everything: was Bartók’s manuscript sufficient to benefit from a completion, at all? What were the work’s dimensions, as the surviving sketch seemed to indicate three movements, while he wrote in a late letter about four? Although it was commissioned by the violist William Primrose and composed as a viola concerto, there were keen arguments for converting it into a cello concerto. This led Tibor Serly, the work’s completer (or, as he liked to be acknowledged, compiler), to have the work presented in the two versions at a private audition.

Four years after Bartók’s death, the Viola Concerto emerged as the winner, but to this day you can still find occasional references to Bartók’s Cello Concerto. How much this premiered work was by Bartók, who did write nearly all of the solo part and provided a variable level of detail for the orchestral parts, or Serly, who realised the orchestral accompaniment in a sympathetic, but overly dutiful way, remained in debate, leading to competing completions in following decades by several leading viola players (of which Maurice was one), and even a revised edition by Bartók’s son, Peter, and Nelson Dellamaggiore.

Meanings. With so many works of the later common-practice period this question is central: “Is it intended to be an abstract or a programmatic work of art?” With opera, the answer is (almost) always programmatic, as the music and the staging are taken to reflect the meaning of the sung text, the libretto. Sometimes all these elements are tightly crafted by the composer, as shown in the Genesis series book on Wagner’s Parsifal, by William Kinderman, or another’s libretto is vividly fused in a hand-in-glove relationship with the music, as demonstrated in Berg’s Wozzeck (by Patricia Hall) and Strauss’s Elektra (by Bryan Gilliam). But sometimes the programmatic tightness of libretto and music is not so coherent, in form or in quality, as becomes evident from Michael C. Tusa’s study of Weber’s “grand romantic opera”, Euryanthe. Perhaps this is why it is rarely programmed today.

Forms such as symphonies and sonatas tend to abstract meanings, more strictly on the music’s own terms, as the track from sketch to score normally demonstrates, sometimes aided by the composer’s own explanations. But do composers always tell us the truth? Alain Frogley’s Genesis study of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth (and last) Symphony of 1957 concludes that, despite the composer’s claim that his second movement’s original program “got lost on the journey”, his sketches and working notes show that he was still thinking in programmatic terms late in that movement’s composition. Moreover, Frogley finds a program of pilgrimage underpinning the symphony’s four movements.

Notations. This is where we can see the real fingerprints of the composer. What composers and performers of the tonal era held in common was fairly uniform ways of encoding, and then decoding, their music. You could call this their spelling. In particular, with pitch notations, most composers neatly demarcated musical structures, and distinguished core and embellishing functions of notes, phrases or motives, even reflecting these functions in their dictated fingerings.

Notational variations and idiosyncrasies feature strongly in all of the Genesis books, often backed up by transcriptions of how spellings changed from one stage to the next of a work, or differed between instruments. But the series has not yet exposed my all-time notational favourites, who come from the second generation of famous Russian composers, born in the 1870s. Alexander Skryabin’s apparently “weird” ways of notating his music are not just tantalising, but, when decoded, reveal answers to essential questions of how his music was structured, as well as giving clues on how to perform it.

The more conservative Sergei Rakhmaninov, perhaps the most beautiful “chromatic” speller of all, provided notations as refined as his own piano technique. While jobbing editors have sometimes “corrected” these notations to more supposedly “readable” ones, their actions are akin to the levelling of English usage by your computer’s editing software. I live in hope of a Genesis volume on a Russian work from this generation in the near future.

The score. In the common-practice tonal era the process of composition followed similar tracks for most composers, with sketching and drafting leading to “the work”, in a score format.

Moving forward to works of the mid-twentieth century we encounter works where there is not a traditional score. In what is now recognised as the founding text of musical minimalism, Terry Riley’s In C, we have an improvisatory work that fits on one sheet of paper. As Robert Carl argues in his Genesis volume, In C qualifies as a “masterwork” not for what it is but rather for what it causes to happen. On that sheet of paper is a kind of recipe to which the players occasionally turn, resulting in performances of some twenty to sixty minutes.

John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra goes a step further in the Genesis series by not having a score at all, just “independent” parts, accompanied by two pages of instructions for the conductor. As with Riley’s work, Cage’s Concert can last for minutes or hours. These works remind us that the highly prescriptive score, interpreted by the all-controlling conductor and essentially re-creative players, is a dominating model from a somewhat slender, but incredibly productive, slice of music history, around 1800 to 1950. Cage’s and Riley’s works also demonstrate that the evidence for explaining how these more recent great works came into existence is very different from the pen-and-pencil sketch-to-score processes of traditional composition. The most pertinent evidence may now include analysis of oral history testimonies, participant interviews and comparisons of early recordings.

Working with historical musicologists, scholarly-informed performers and forensic editors across the world on the Genesis book series has led me to marvel at the myriad ways these talented individuals represent musical phenomena in the medium of the written word. They mostly avoid the trap laid for the less wary of undermining the thoroughly aural basis upon which all musical art stands by constantly using visual or verbal analogies. These scholars have to be able to use a few deftly chosen words to bring to life the experience of pure music, and of its composer as agent of start­ling aural transformations.

Such a unique package of forensic and authorial skills has led to the unexpected rise of the musicologist as dramatic hero. First, William Kinderman’s Genesis study of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations gained Broadway fame through its inspiration of Moisés Kaufman’s drama 33 Variations. In a production of 2009 the fictional German musicologist Katherine Brand, somewhat modelled on Kinderman, was played by Jane Fonda.

This year’s most enigmatic film, Tár, reveals musicology PhD Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett), demonstrating her highly-informed conducting of Mahler’s scores, particularly his Fifth Symphony. Blanchett even states she is “reading Mahler’s tea-leaves”, and stresses the importance of following the composer’s exact notations, underscored by a later scene about a missing volume from her Mahler edition. While Tár exemplifies the musicologist as hero, other aspects of her life reveal her as more of a villain.

The Genesis series has two richly sourced volumes about Mahler’s symphonies: the Fourth, by James L. Zychowicz, and the Seventh, by Anna Stoll Knecht. Stoll Knecht’s is particularly important for its focus on Mahler’s compositional process, which she reveals through what he discarded along the way, rather than what he kept. As she maps how Mahler worked across, rather than through, the symphony, it is not surprising that his last completed movement was the symphony’s first.

Technology has certainly aided the popularisation of Genesis studies over the last forty years. Where once hand-written transcriptions and grainy black-and-white photographs of sketches were frequent, now it is the norm to include digital supplements, or refer to book websites. With archival digitisation now well advanced you can often directly access the very manuscripts central to a book’s debates. Open access publication of doctoral theses also provides easier paths to key discoveries or new sources in emerging scholars’ work.

I consider the music of this now-historic common-practice period is among the top half-dozen cultural achievements of Western civilisation. That legacy still affects our conceptions of music, the methodologies we use to appraise it, and even the selection of forms and styles we hear in “new” work today. But I do not think we need to live musically in its shadow, or to limit today’s artistic conceptions to yesteryear’s monumental achievements.

Occasionally I am asked how this core tonal repertory should feature in 2020s Australia, as we forge a more distinctive cultural identity, and look increasingly to indigenous heritages. The only answer I give is that in some institutions and courses a systematic study of this repertory and its Great Works needs to be available, as much because of a continuing demand to learn about them as for the intriguing nature and complexity of their thought. And we need to encourage music ensembles—as also in dance, art and theatre—to meet the evolving tastes and specific interests of their audiences. Such ensembles as the Brandenburg Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera and the Romantic and Classical Orchestra are strong proponents of heartland works from this common-practice period, and rightly have their dedicated audiences.

In the academic sphere the recent curricular initiatives of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation stand out, through the Centre’s sponsorship of Great Books courses, including music courses, across a number of public and private institutions. These initiatives, with their preference for learning through dialogue, hopefully foster those forensic skills of artistic critique that are so vital to all Genesis studies.

While I do not feel any need somehow to Australianise this global Genesis series, I would be pleased if a major composition by an eminent Australian might one day soon command its own volume. But which work? A bolder initiative could be to inaugurate a series of books delving into individual Australian compositions of eminence, whatever their lineage. A similar scholarly impulse lies behind the growing series of analytical books about the music of individual Australian composers—so far, of Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale, Nigel Butterley, Carl Vine and Liza Lim—spearheaded by Wildbird Music and sponsored by the composer Brian Howard. Our great musical works now deserve such exposure.

Malcolm Gillies is a musicologist and retired vice-chancellor, now living in Canberra.


One thought on “Fingerprints of Musical Genius

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    How beautifully Caravaggio pulls us into the world of music as he knew it and heard it.
    You can almost hear the sounds of it and feel the textures of the clothing, the sense of the wine.
    We ‘know’ the musicians tuning up and sounding out their notes, while the little chap excitedly looks at us.
    Glory be, good luck with Quadrant music.

Leave a Reply