Michael Hurd - The Composer

Oxford University Press 1968

As a composer himself, but blessed with additional skills of scholarship and a highly tuned ability to write clearly and effectively about his chosen field, Michael Hurd was uniquely placed to open a window on to the composer's mind.

A selection of comments and thoughts from each chapter:

The Composer

So few people meet composers in the ordinary course of events they are apt to form all sorts of strange ideas about what they are actually like. Pictures of distraught musicians tearing their hair in a frenzy of inspiration are what most people carry in their mind's eye. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us think of the composer as a perfectly ordinary man, to whom fate has given a mind that responds profoundly and creatively to that language which we call music.

The Composer's Mind

Ideas do not spring out of thin air. Everything in this world has a source and in the case of a composer it seems obvious that his ideas are based upon what other composers have done before him.

In an unmusical mind there may well be a small number of musical ideas stored away but the atmosphere is unsympathetic and no links can be made. In the second-rate musical mind the ideas can be made to join in a logical fashion, but only in a second-hand way. In the first-rate musical mind - the one that has genius - the links are made in an entirely novel and completely convincing manner.

Composers learn to compose simply by composing.

The genuine composer is compelled by some inner force. He can neither explain nor control it. All he knows is that if he does not make use of his talents he will be miserable.

The composer simply shares the need that all mankind is dogged by: to find something that gives a meaning and purpose to life, something that is larger and more glorious than the mere fact of being alive.

The Composer at Work

There is no one method of composing but whichever method you adopt, composing calls for enormous powers of concentration.

Composers will tell you that the first warning they have of a new work is often not so much a particular musical idea as a sudden knowledge of what the work will be like when it is finished. They must then carry this musical vision in their minds while they struggle to achieve it.

Because it is necessary to keep a firm grip on the overall shape of a piece of music, many composers like to sketch their works in short score, two or three staves, such as might easily be played on the piano. Once this general impression has been written down they can go back and complete the details.

Tchaikovsky's remarks about the excitement and nervous tensions that go with creative activity are borne out by the experience of many composers. Ordinary time will seem to stand still and the facts of daily life mean nothing. This part of creative work is like a trance, a state of high exhilaration.

But the intoxication cannot last forever. What follows is the sober business of perfecting the detailed score. Somehow he must keep the vision of the complete work before him while he moves towards it with craft and ingenuity.

The Composer's Workshop

Odd as it may seem, the mere fact of sitting down at the same desk, in the same room, and at the same hour each day of the week can stimulate the composer's thoughts.

Of all stimuli, of of the most effective is surely the pressure of time - the need to get the job finished by a certain date, come what may. Rossini had no doubts about this - " The best way to write an overture is to wait until the evening before the opening night. "

Composers no longer think it slightly shameful to answer a specific request for music. [Hurd himself asserted that he never wrote unless for a commission ]. The idea of the composer working to order is easier to understand when it is realized that he does not have to be in the same mood as the music he wishes to create. A cheerful mood may touch off musical invention as readily as a sad one. Composers are quite able to express themselves when they are not crossed in love as when they are - though popular superstition prefers to have them with permanently broken hearts.

Preliminaries to Composing

Even the most gifted composer must study the basic grammar of his craft at some time in his career. To begin with he must learn all there is to know about musical notation. Notation is best learned in learning to play an instrument. A great deal may be done by listening carefully to music, while at the same time studying the printed score. It is no more a mysterious skill than any other.

Ideally the young composer must learn to translate notation into imagined sound and turn imagined or real sounds into notation. Once this has been achieved there is nothing to hinder the free flow of his imagination.

[ There follows a rather loftily academic survey of what was at the time of publication regard as "modern" music - aleatory, electronic and such. It is not hard to read between Hurd's lines for his true meaning.]

The Student Composer

There is no one way of teaching the art of composition. There are even strong reasons for saying that it cannot be taught at all and that each young composer must simply teach himself by trial and error.

But it is unlikely that the young composer will make much headway without study of what composers have done in the past, and it is here that academic rules and regulations become valuable.

Preparatory studies usually divide into harmony, counterpoint, musical form and orchestration. The value of academic studies also lies in the discipline they impose on the mind. However, all the academic study in the world will not turn a man into a composer unless he has an inborn talent for composition.

The First Performance

Publication is not the goal most composers have been looking for. Far more important are performances and in particular the first performance.

He is eager to see if his ideas will be understood and accepted and yet he is fearful that something will go wrong and bring about a completely false impression of what he was trying to say.

Very early in a composer's career there comes the realization that no performance, however good, can ever quite match the private performance that went on in his head as he wrote the work.

© The Estate of Michael Hurd