Yes, composition is analysis.
Let’s start by remembering I didn’t say composition is only analysis.
Take for a moment Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, which I wrote about here.
If one sits down and carefully analyzes the piece in its final form, you can’t help but be struck by how logically and organically it is constructed. The large scale structure of the piece seems to be a perfect reflection of the small scale structure of the individual ideas and motives. You get the sense that Sibelius had a complete, organic design for the work from the first note to the last.
However, when one then turns to the earlier versions of the piece, particularly the first version, you can see that, in fact, Sibelius struggled for many years to find that organic perfection which is the hallmark of the finished piece. Far from having had the plan for the work from the beginning, Sibelius struggled for some years to find a form that was right for the material he was working with. That process is analytical in nature- just as a theorist or a conductor may dissect the musical ideas of a work to figure out how the relate to each other in a finished work, many composers work in a similar way in the sketch process- generating melodies, phrases and large structures from the musical DNA of a few notes.
This was Beethoven’s main working method- beginning with quickly scribbled notes to himself of a musical idea or motive, which he then began to work out – not necessarily in the context of the form of the work. Motives become phrases which become periods. In one work he might have begun with the big picture- symphony in c minor, perhaps. In another case he might have simply begun with a theme and taken up the challenge of figuring out what he could do with it. The classical example of that method might be the works based on the theme of the last movement Eroica Symphony, which also include the Finale from Creatures of Prometheus and the Variations and Fugue for Piano, op 35. Go here for a short excerpt from an essay by Elliot Forbes showing some examples of Beethoven’s sketch process in the first movement of the 5th Symphony.
As I mentioned yesterday, it’s Mahler 4 which is on my desk right now. I’d like to save the bulk of my discussion of this piece for a little later, but let me just point out that Mahler composed the song, Das himmlishe Leben, which became the finale of this symphony about eight years before he composed the rest of the work. In fact, he long intended it to be the finale of the 3rd. As a result, we have in the 4th a symphony that was not composed from beginning to end, but from end to beginning. Mahler had to essentially dismantle his finished work (the song) into it’s component parts so that he could create three movements that seem to culminate in the finale. For the listener they do culminate in the finale, but the music was not written that way.
Virtually every theme and motive in the first three movements of the symphony has a connection to the musical material of the finale, sometimes very explicit and easily audible (i.e. the music of the opening bars of the symphony in the flutes and sleighbells appears to return in finale at Figure 3, although we now know Mahler extracted the opening from that passage), and sometimes more subliminally (in addition to his lifelong obsession with the perfect fourth, this symphony shows an obsession with the rising major sixth, which is the first interval of the melody of the song).
For all that we hear the 4th Symphony as inspiration, and as a voyage from beginning to end, from a child’s view of the world to a child’s view of heaven, the work was written from end to beginning. That process was primarily analytical, and, like Sibelius in his 5th Symphony, Mahler (who had, after all been thinking of this song as a final movement of a symphony for eight years and had, in essence, tried to write the 3rd Symphony with this song as a finale), knew when he’d finally succeeded at the end of the summer of 1900. Just as the process had been analytical, so it was an analytical impulse that told him when the work was finished- when the micro and macro elements of the piece were perfectly balanced and related, and when he had found a way of working out his musical ideas that was true to the ideas themselves.
And it is this idea I leave with- it is a cliché to speak of a finished work as somehow true to a composer’s vision. However, what really makes a piece work is when the finished piece is true to its materials, when the composer has found a context for the ideas that is true to their nature. When someone other than the composer analyzes a piece of music, we are trying to understand that truth, to understand why the music does what it does. When the composer builds a work from analysis, she or he is trying to understand what the music needs to do.
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods
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