Yes, composition is analysis

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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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Yes, composition is analysis”

  1. composerbastard

    “Let’s start by remembering I didn’t say composition is only analysis.”

    You’re deflecting. You made a priori proof that requires backup and I don’t see it.

    “Composition is analysis.”

    Having spent a great deal of time immersed in Beethoven sketch books and intrigued by his compositional process as perhaps a key into my own, many months in studying Sibelius’ composition technique (both formally in school and informally out in space where things really happen), and one who has as the basis of his technique a long history of not only the crazy Germanic school you seem to hold as the penultimate ambassador of “good writing”, but also the Yankee uptown post tonal set theoretics that grew out of this disjunct sickness, I can assure you…without doubt…that composition is not analysis. Composition can be many things, but analysis is only one small tool in the composers pants pocket of life that he or she can choose to use or choose to avoid at all costs. The music created by one end of the extreme or another can still work and be meaningful and be great.

    I am sure there are a number of modern composers( both living and dead), whether you like their work or not, that might give you a more rigor-battle about those Euro traditional misconceptions that have polluted western culture for centurys. Or at least point you to some other more interesting approaches to organizing sound or silence.

    I believe my statement is more effective more meaningful than your will ever be:

    Composition is Cognitive Science.

    A good composer can make great music out of anything and using any means at his disposal.

    Analysis and motivic development is simply one means out of an infinite set of techniques to reach that end…

    You’ve been living in Wales too long. Maybe you need to be put in a room with Cage and Feldman for a while?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey CB

    Thanks for the comment. I actually agree with everything you say excpt “composition is not analysis.” I wouldn’t worry too much about my three years here in Wales, since I really only sleep here and do the odd gig, and don’t worry- I spend plenty of time with Feldman and Cage- I just wish I’d get paid to perform their music more often.

    “Composition is Cognitive Science.”
    YEs, I agree! composition is also cognitive science.


  3. ComposerBastard

    One cannot forget Debussy, whom in the midst of hearing a Beethoven Symphony proclaimed (or at least is attributed to saying)…

    “Gentleman, I believe we have approached the end of the exposition, and are now headed into the development section. Time to go and smoke a cigarette…”

    …and then headed to the lobby to smoke a few…whatevers…since it was a rather long movement…and there were some extraordinary good looking cigarette girls downstairs…

    Or that he and others thought that the Germanic tradition a bit like presenting your business card and then speaking and repeating everything on it over and over and over ad nasea…

    Or let us not forget that our dear friend Sibelius seemed to have ended his long career by composing himself into a corner with motives…and the only reason he didnt end up shooting himself in the head with a Mauser, is that bullets were both expensive and hard to find considering there were a few wars going on in Europe during his time. He chose the bottle instead…to end his creative depression. And burned his last motives in a wastefire…to make sure it remained so…

    Or let us not forget and respect that there were many extremely well crafted “connectionist” musical works created in the 20th century that were theoretical masterpieces yet were utter trash when it came to art.

    Or let us not forget composers like Takemitsu or the AE work of Pollock and other “flow” artists who resisted analysis and who do not fall so neatly into that germanic pandora box of evil “analysis”.

    And finally remember that the mind is a great pattern recognizing machine…able to find intricate connections where none really were intended by the artist or by any intentional applied systematic analysis. Analysis always seem to come after the creative act. It’s all a mirage.

    Creativity and making decisions vs analysis are not one and the same thing, no need to follow sequetially in a cause-effect chain. Repeat…creativity/decisions != analysis. Repeat, analysis == leading to ==> decisions, is not always the case…decisions can be made independent of conscious analysis. Decisions can be made unconsiously when you believe you are making them using some consious analytical system!

    Outside of any discission on how the mind can deceive perception of reality in creative acts for its own agenda, I really believe that people are all so fixated on “systems” of art that they miss something much more important in how the mind processes and understands music and sound, which is more universal and/or cultural. There are many “systems” of analysis and they don’t always apply or have one iota of “scientific” double blind proof that they were ever valid. And the deconstructionists just love to follow these “Patterns” as if they can package and shrinkwrap it into a utilitarian commercial product to be had by all on the shelves of Safeway or Whole Foods (if you eat organic) so you too can become an artist for $19.99.

    As I said, analysis and motivic development is only one systematic tool that a composer can use or to totally reject. Repeat…totally reject. Dreams, i-ching, or any number of “non-systems” are available that do not depend on analysis as much as “flow” and acceptance by the artist. The artistic act of removing the human touch here. No thinking – just being in the moment. Non-western. Zen, dude. Even though the task is not always successful, sometimes it works with great affect. The mind finds the patterns it needs, and in different ways. We might consider these kinds of artists brave for going down that path of freedom since its so difficult to leave yourself out of it. Have you ever tried to actually write a musical Koan?

    And certainly, it has been proven (i read a far bit of experimental psychology these days since I think that is where great strides for an artist growth lay) that the “decision” process is less affected by analysis than by other subconsious factors that we surpisingly have little control over. You may think you are using a system, or are analyzing and using that analysis to realize a decision path for your work, but are you? The mind is an incredible trickster. It could very well be you made that decision because you skipped your morning coffee…or had a cell phone call from Sibelius asking you for some money to buy a bottle of Stolichnaya.

    That’s the great thing about the infinite world of art and creativity – anything is possible….and nothing can save you from yourself, your flaws, or your beauty. No systems of composition or analysis is ever going to be able to act as a crutch to get you fully there, or substitute for that faith you must have in going to the composition table or going to the podium every day. Its much too small a factor.

    Analysis I compare to a minature eyeglass screwdriver in a garage full of tools, smells, and bags of ruff stuff I dare not open. It is useful in some cases, but is totally overvalued when it comes to creativity and art…certainly not warranted to say that “Composition IS analysis”. Maybe for a conductor it has to be, but for a composer it certainly doesn’t or shouldn’t and certainly I hope not for me (although I am probably the most organized composer you will ever meet).

  4. anne onymous

    Bastard, if you want to go on so long, post on your own blog. Comments should be short and sweet, eh?

  5. ComposerBastard

    composerbastard smells a sneaky editor amidst us is twiddling with the speak – in my retort to you, and in your anne onymous comment (edited again at August 21st, 2007 at 10:11 pm).

    If Master Kenneth desires to air a long written public view about analysis, composition, and our dear composerbastard friend Sibelius, then the invitation to refute or present an alternate view within that context and index is warranted as a human right…especially when it may insite fire and riots within composerly domains. Length is not an issue. Subject is.

    At least, I, anne onymous, unlike you, use my real name and am not afraid to speak at length about the subject. There is too much at stake.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    One comment has been removed from this post,

    No other comments have been edited, although the spelling of Anne Onymous was changed for fun.


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