Virtue – Oh So! (get it? Like a pun)

I was introduced  last week to the musical work L’Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky. It’s a theatrical setting of a soldier’s story, there’s a narrator, the soldier is making deals with the devil, there’s a fiddle involved, and several un-marchable-to marches. I guess I probably should have encountered it sooner, but let’s be honest, I spent most of my time in music history class drawing dirty pictures of buxom ladies in superhero costumes (this was before wifi, and WAY before facebook).

I loved it. I loved it even more when I realized, about mid-way through the second piece in the work, that I was not listening to two violins, but to one almost unplayable violin part. The work is written for a small chamber ensemble, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, percussion, violin, and bass (acoustic bass, not awesome bass). Every part in the ensemble calls for a virtuoso; it’s some of the most difficult writing you’re likely to every see for those instruments. You can watch a full version of it online, conducted by Esa-Pekka and played by an amazing collection of musicians.

(the work begins at 10:40. Direct link here)

It’s technically challenging, it’s also hauntingly beautiful and musically thrilling. I’ve been talking to different players about it, and the reaction is almost always the same; a wistful look of longing, some combination of words that boils down to, “I’d love to be able to play it. I’d love to be able to play it.”

It was the perfect time for me to encounter the piece. Earlier in the week, I did a reading workshop for my own piece, Our Father, Vindicate. The reading workshop is where a bunch of musicians get together, perform the work, let me stop and start them at whim, let me make changes to the score, basically they become a huge sequencer for me to work through some final decisions in the piece before committing to final ink. It was a wonderful experience (that’s a whole other post), with a group of our best students and a few professional singers reading down the parts. As good as they were, the piece was still almost unsingable at times.

I am not Stravinsky. Clearly.

But the combination of hearing great singers struggle through my piece, and then hearing world-class players grapple with the fist-full of notes in Stravinsky’s piece made be think about the obligations of the composer to their players.

I think there are three obligations that a composer has to their instrumentalists, when they decide to write technically challenging material.

First, it should be only as difficult as it must be to achieve the desired musical effect. This is the obligation not to write difficult music for the sake of the difficulty. There is no virtue in awkwardness, only in the musical effect.

Second, and this is where most young composers fall short, the composer has an obligation to understand the instruments they are writing for. If I am writing for violin, I should understand the instrument well enough that I can physically mimic how the player will approach the part, and can identify technical hurdles before the player ever sees the piece. This allows the composer to make informed decisions about the first obligation, to only write difficult passages when they are required. If moving the piece up a whole step places my violin double-stops on open strings, I should know that, and should be able to give a musical justification for why I decided to leave it in the more difficult key. Technical difficulty should never be the result of the composer’s arrogance, ignorance or apathy.

Finally, and most importantly, it is the obligation of the composer to ensure that the work justifies the challenge. This is the obligation to write well. If I’m going to give musicians a piece that requires substantial rehearsal, mental and emotional effort on their part, I better make sure that the end result justifies the work they are investing. Performing virtuosic passages requires the musician to internalize the music, to prepare it so well that it no longer comes from the page, but from the player. A musician who agrees to perform a work at that level is giving me access to their musicianship, allowing me to weave my musical ideas into them. That is a deep level of trust, and it obligates the composer to write up to a level that deserves such trust.

Toward the end of the week, I sat in and listened to a composition jury, where student composers preset the works they have written over the semester. It reminded me of how badly I’ve broke all three of these obligations in the course of my writing career. These thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a while, but the combination of these three experiences, Stravinsky, the reading workshop, and the juries, crystallized them into something usable.

I’m writing more difficult music today than I have before, but I hope I’m doing it for the right reasons. I hope I’m meeting these expectations myself.

I’m interested in hearing from those of you who are composers and performers. How does this fit with your experiences performing technically difficult works, or with writing challenging pieces?


11 thoughts on “Virtue – Oh So! (get it? Like a pun)

  1. aly hawkins

    I think you’re spot on, Michael, and I think these guidelines are applicable to writing other than musical. Of course, most modern prose writing is not intended for performance, as music is (children’s books, poetry and plays are another story), but I think the very best writers (1) make their work only as difficult as it needs to be (readability); (2) are mindful of the reader’s likely ability (reading level); and (3) craft their work. As an editor, I can tell you that nos. 1 and 2 are a pretty easy fix (unfortunately, many music composers do not have friendly neighborhood editors to help them think these points thru). No. 3 is trickier, and—as you said—the most important. GOOD-ness can’t be added in by anyone but the writer, and if it’s not there…well, I’ll probably read it, but I’m a book whore. Good luck finding anyone else.

    Here’s where I contradict myself a little: As an occasional performer and a constant reader, I admit that difficulty in the material can sometimes be its own reward. It feels absolutely incredible to master something previously just out of reach. But the very best performers (and the very best readers) will not long be satisfied by difficulty as a substitute for GOOD-ness.

    I wonder if these guidelines are true in some way for visual artists, as well. June?

  2. michael lee Post author

    “Here’s where I contradict myself a little: As an occasional performer and a constant reader, I admit that difficulty in the material can sometimes be its own reward.”

    I think that’s possible, but like you say, it fades quickly. Also, there are times when difficult writing obscures the good intent. Outside of music, the example that comes to mind is Kant. Brilliant thinker. Shame about the writing.

  3. Sharolyn's Husband

    I got to play a gig this week where an orchestra read through four composers’ new works. After we read each piece, we rehearsed the piece for a few minutes with the composers’ input, and then we recorded the piece for the composer.

    One of the pieces called for a wah-wah sound from the trumpet and trombone. The composer spent some time working on what sound she wanted. One problem, I don’t think she knew before hand what she wanted. If you aren’t sure what you want, how are you going to know when the musicians are doing it? I think she wanted a harmon mute, stem in. (That was my vote.) But you could do harmon stem out, plunger only, hand only, or any combination of the above. Also, on a trombone, if you are going to ask for wah wah sounds, don’t write too low, because a trombone player needs two hands to play below “E” on the first ledger line below the bass clef staff, and cannot make a wah wah sound because we don’t have 3 hands.

    A composer should know that flutter tonguing on a brass instrument at a very soft dynamic is almost impossible. Man, this is making for great reading isn’t it?

    It also got me thinking about melodies. One of the composers did not really have a melody in her piece. There are some GREAT pieces with minimalist melodies. Like John Adams Harmonium.

    The trombone glissandos are so cool because the players only have to move their slides in one direction. Adams knows how to write for trombones so that they can glissando in the best way. He also is using the glissandos for energy in the piece, not just because he knows a trombone can gliss. So that is an example of why you need to know all the instruments technical abilities and have a purpose for them.

    If you are going to write music that is dreary and slow, make it like this.
    Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony.

    I can’t get into Kant. Get it, Chad? It sounds the same.

  4. Eric

    Just about anything I might have to offer has already been said better and more succinctly…

    Mike, your three criteria are, as Aly observed, spot on. Difficult technical passages have to justify their inclusion musically. Composers need to know at least enough about the instruments for which they are writing not to ask for the impossible (more about this a bit later, though). And finally, the intangible – the result has to (in some way) justify the effort.

    Difficulty for the sake of being difficult – that explains why Iannis Xenakis, Carl Ruggles and Charles Wuorinen aren’t better known.

    Interestingly, when Stravinsky was commissioned to write a violin concerto for Samuel Dushkin, he objected that he didn’t play the instrument. The publisher assured him that Dushkin would be willing to offer technical advice, and in the end, the violinist observed that, not being a violinist himself, Stravinsky was able to write music that wasn’t limited to the usual clichés. There are, of course, famous examples of “unplayable” music which have entered the standard repertory: the double bass part of the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the gorgeous Barber Violin Concerto (industrialist Samuel Fels commissioned it for his adopted son, Iso Briselli; when Briselli complained that the last movement was too difficult to play, Fels demanded his advance be returned. To prove the work wasn’t “unplayable”, Barber arranged for a young violinist at Curtis to practically sight-read the finale).

    I think it’s really only on the third criterion that musical technique advances. Composers pose technical challenges that are worth overcoming, ones that reward the player when he/she is able to master them.

    I can still remember a performance of L’Histoire that my wife played (double bass) when she was 18. It was amazing.


  5. Eric

    Mike, I read through the pdf you so generously sent of “Our Father, Vindicate” and while there are some technically challenging sections, I wouldn’t have thought “almost unsingable at times”. Have your singers ever tried sight-reading Gesualdo? Or (since you’re on a Stravinsky streak) “The Dove Descending”?

    There are many unexpected and wonderful moments in the piece: the 5/8 fugato on “Give us this day”, the Kyrie, tone clusters, and the aleatoric climax, but all should be well within the capabilities of a well-rehearsed male choir (though I seem to recall your original post mentioned something about deliquents?…;-) Definitely not difficult for it’s own sake and (I’m guessing) difficulty well-rewarded for the effort.


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