The romantic myth tells us that composers are struck as if by lightning with bolts of musical inspiration, which send them scurrying to...
The romantic myth tells us that composers are struck as if by lightning with bolts of musical inspiration, which send them scurrying to the piano with sheaves of paper and bottles of ink. Consumed by white-hot creativity, they lock their doors and refuse all offers of food and drink, as maidservants shout through the keyhole, “But Herr Beethoven! You MUST eat something!”
Weeks later, the dazed and much thinner composer emerges, bearing the manuscript of a new ink-stained masterpiece: A new concerto has burst upon the world.
That’s not quite how it works nowadays, if it was ever thus. Many composers don’t use a piano for the composition process, because they don’t need one in order to set down the notes they hear in their heads. Often they don’t use writing implements, either, not with software like Sibelius and Finale changing their chicken-scratch handwriting into perfect-looking manuscripts.
And it is not only the lightning bolts of inspiration that sustain them, but also commissions. For the few composers who are able to make a living entirely by the music they write (rather than by teaching or performance jobs), the commission is all-important — promising at once some income and a premiere performance.
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Fun with underwriting
In the days of yesteryear, it was the royal or noble patron who underwrote the cost of a new symphony or suite. But now, a more imaginative conception of this process has resulted in a practice that may revolutionize the field: the commissioning club.
Here in the Northwest, the 2-year-old Seattle Commissioning Club is underwriting its first major project: a new Horn Concerto by Samuel Jones, the Seattle Symphony’s resident composer and the creator of a highly popular Tuba Concerto two years back. The club, a group of five couples, got its inspiration from a similar club in Minnesota that commissioned a new work at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival at the Lakeside School a few years ago.
Mary Morgan, a Seattle novelist, and her physician husband, Alan Morgan (both longtime festival supporters), watched the Minnesota group in action when they came to Seattle for the premiere at the Lakeside festival.
“They brought along about 30 friends,” Mary Morgan remembers, “and they were having such a good time that I thought, ‘We could do this.’ The whole idea was mind-expanding. But initially nobody would leap into the water with me.”
Gradually that changed, as Morgan exercised her persuasive powers on two more festival patrons, Drs. Alexander Clowes and Susan Detweiler. Exercising more persuasion, in addition to planning large dinners with substantial quantities of wine, Morgan brought on board three other couples — Patricia Tall-Takacs and Gary Takacs, Laura Ingham and Roy Lundgren, and Eve and Mark Anderson — for a total of 10. (One of the members jokingly calls the group “Les Dix,” punning on the group of early-20th-century French composers called “Les Six.”)
“Our friend in Minnesota,” Morgan recalls, “said you really just want enough people to go around the dining-room table.”
Well, that’s pretty!
Each couple pledged $2,000 a year. The money was starting to accumulate when the Morgans encountered Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz at a function after Jones’ premiere of the Tuba Concerto. The talk turned to the Commissioning Club, and Schwarz immediately suggested a future Horn Concerto from Jones as a worthy project. Meetings — and more dinners and wine — ensued.
“We had a wonderful time,” Morgan says.
“Sam brought us along with him in this process, and was very patient with us. The first time we met with him, he sat down at the piano and proposed what he might do, where the horn would come in and do this or that. Of course we all nodded sagely.
“We’re not musicians, but it sounded nice. We just love music and like the idea of being involved. Then it was a great opportunity to have something performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra — otherwise we might be lucky if a composition we funded would ever see the light of day. I feel we’ve started off at the top.”
“A wonderful experience”
During the composition period, Jones met with the club to talk about the concerto’s development, and he played portions of his work-in-progress on the piano. When the concerto was essentially complete, club members and Schwarz heard a private rendition performed by the soloist, Seattle Symphony principal horn John Cerminaro, with piano accompaniment. The Commissioning Club will receive a full score as another souvenir of the project.
“We all think it’s a very fine piece,” said Morgan of the new concerto. “Writing music is a creative endeavor beyond my understanding. To translate sound into something written down … it’s a mystery.”
For his part, Jones says it was a “wonderful experience” to work with the Commissioning Club. Composing, after all, can be a very solitary activity, and Jones found it “fun to have a group of true music lovers so interested in how it’s all unfolding.”
This process, Jones concedes, wouldn’t work for some composers. There are those who want to keep the composing very close, disliking any discussion about the forthcoming work, much less sharing themes and other musical specifics. But Jones, who also is a composition teacher, found the convivial aspects of his newest commission “extremely rewarding.”
Jones also worked closely with Cerminaro, the soloist, about what would work and what wouldn’t in terms of the instrument. He calls Cerminaro “a consummate artist who has lavished a rare focus and dedication on this piece. It’s a real joy to sense his deep commitment to the concerto.”
The horn’s historic association with heroic motifs is one of the impulses behind the concerto, which contains what Jones calls “a kind of musical metaphor for climbing a mountain. The first half of the final movement is gradually ascending; when the peak is attained, there is a blazing, full-throated chorale, and the soloist is exulting, sending out horn calls with almost an alpine feeling. He listens and hears answering echoes from two horns positioned offstage. Reaching the base of the mountain again, there is a quotation from [the hymn] ‘A Balm in Gilead,’ with the echo horns returning onstage to join in.”
Watching all of this develop has been fun for the Commissioning Club members, who even now have the next project in mind — for 2011. By then, Morgan predicts, the group will be “rolling in money” as it collects $10,000 a year from the club members. It’s a good thing, too, because a major commission can cost roughly $1,000 a performance minute, though the amount varies widely depending on the prominence of the composer and related issues.
“Please emphasize,” instructs Morgan, “that we know nothing. But we’ve had a lot of fun in our two years, and we’re looking forward to more.”
Melinda Bargreen: firstname.lastname@example.org