The sound of one wing flapping: it is not necessarily someone giving you the bird behind your back.
– Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)
Over the years, I have built something of a fleet of pieces created with specific performers in mind (and, at times, written upon request), but which for a variety of reasons were not performed at the time. (One reason in some cases is, that I wrote a piece harder than the situation warranted, or welcomed; I want to be fair, and disclose that the composer may be to some degree ‘at fault’, at least at times) A significant part of the fleet have never yet been out of the garage.
As I reflect upon this state of musical affairs, and reflect upon What It All Might Mean, Gentle Reader, I think often of (for instance) the Prokofiev Second Symphony. Its fate was very different from that of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, which the composer (we might say) pulled from the stands of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and then kept sealed tight in a strongbox, because its content was such that a public performance would only have sunk Shostakovich into hottest water with Moscow. No, the Prokofiev Second was performed, and in Paris, where presumably the audience was disposed to be favorable. The composer remarked that [neither he nor the audience understood the piece], and wrote to his friend Myaskovsky, [“I have made the music complex to such an extent that when I listen to it myself I do not fathom its essence, so what can I ask of others?”] He would disclose that the experience of the Second Symphony left him [doubting his abilities as a composer for the first time in his life]; and at the end of his life a projected revision of the Symphony was on a to-do list, and already assigned a new opus number.
It pains me to say this about one of history’s great composer’s, but he was (in my firm opinion) dead wrong: the Symphony is masterly.
(Of course, practically any of the great composers might be dead wrong now and again; it does not alter their artistic greatness.)
The very first I heard the Symphony, I’ll admit that it puzzled me. In hindsight, I consider this in part a matter of suggestion, the negative evaluation of at least one musicologist (apparently “confirmed” by the composer’s own doubts–see “Dead Wrong,” above), and in part the recording which I first heard, which is now not among the recordings of the work which I should recommend.
Well, there was (I think, clearly) a point at which Prokofiev believed in the piece, substantially and possibly completely. But apparently, that point was prior to the performance. Afterwards, his belief in the piece (and indeed, in himself as an artist) was shaken. I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that it was not a great performance – not so much because the composer himself wondered as a result if he had not (in Rod Serling’s rich phrase) given birth to a turd – but because of the piece’s complexity. I should be very surprised if Koussevitsky had ample rehearsal time to do the score justice.
So, when mulling on the music of mine which has sat unperformed, I think about the Prokofiev Second – a piece which (apart from a disastrous première performance) was never performed in the composer’s lifetime, and to which he took a musically unfounded, but (understandably, emotionally) severe objection.
While each piece must be considered on its own, I do occasionally visit the garage, and turn the ignition, just to see if I still like the hum of the engine. (There: I think I’ve teased that simile quite enough.) I believed in the piece when I first wrote it; do I believe in it still? Does it “need something”?
This week is not the first time I have revisited Counting Sheep (or, The Dreamy Abacus of Don Quijote). I went through it completely, prepared morally to give it a thorough overhaul, while preparing a new Sibelius file of the score. Apart from recasting the changing meters of the balletto quasi flamenco passage (–not because there was anything orthographically wrong with the notation, but because it was the rare instance of my having found a notational solution in Finale, which I have not been able to duplicate exactly in Sibelius–) I found no substantial alterations to be made for artistic reasons. I revisited it again, in preparing an alternate scoring (for “Pierrot-plus” ensemble). And this week, I am visiting again with this alternate instrumentation, as I prepare to submit it to a call for scores. I like it. It is a piece challenging for the players (but to a team of professionals, I am doubtful that the piece would be any serious obstacle) but, I think, rather an affable piece for the audience. I do not believe that the MIDI does the piece proper justice – well, MIDI does no piece proper justice. Let me say instead, that the sound of the MIDI is much more of a hindrance, than it is for several other pieces of mine.
No knowing when the piece will at last enjoy its première. But in the particular hand of poker with the musical Fates, the composer stands pat.
Mr. Serling’s “Turd” Simile: A Side-Bar
The experience of my own nearest the shock of the d minor symphony disaster for Sergei Sergeyevich, must have been a choir rehearsal many years ago, the first time the choir rehearsed (read, really) my unaccompanied setting of the Advent Responsory “I look from afar.” I did not recognize my own piece. Truly.
It got better.