Writers, which classical composer are you?

Some time ago, Sarah Hoyt wrote a long post at MadGeniusClub on making oneself “write like the wind”.  Somewhat tangentially related, Christopher Nuttall blogged in the same venue about the three types of writer: the “wannabe”, the “amateur”, and the “professional”.

The wannabe was memorably depicted by Albert Camus (in “The Plague”) as a civil servant named Joseph Grand who wants to write a number but has spent ten years looking for the perfect opening sentence. The amateur does get things written and published, but for him, the writing is just a hobby (perhaps even with a therapeutic aspect) and (s)he treats it as such: if he is too tired to write or the creative juices aren’t flowing, then so be it. For the professional, on the other hand, writing is a day job, and bills don’t get paid unless books get written. [A commenter would add a fourth category: the “moonlighting” writer who has a day job to pay the bills, but treats the writing as a second job.]

In a nutshell, the recommendations of both writers boil down to: if you want to make a living from writing, (a) treat it like a job, and make yourself write whether you want to or not, whether you have inspiration or not; (b) make yourself write fast, because the more you write, the better you get at it, and the more there is for people to buy. Especially (b) is a far cry from the romantic fantasy of the writer as an “artiste”-demiurge.

But is there only one path to being a writer? As I see it — if I may use a musical metaphor — it boils down to which composer one wants to be.

At one extreme are the Mozarts and Vivaldis. A snide joke among some classical musicians has it that Vivaldi didn’t write 400+ concertos, but 400+ times the same concerto. Of course this is a cheap shot, but even people who generally love classical music would be hard-pressed to name any Vivaldi composition other than the Four Seasons.

Disparaging comments aside, “The Ginger Priest” did help establish the concerto as a classical music form, which in itself is no mean musical legacy. None other than J. S. Bach  studied his work diligently and transcribed several of his concerti for keyboard instruments. You might say Vivaldi was a kind of E. E. “Doc” Smith among composers.

Mozart was every bit as prolific and crowd-pleasing as Vivaldi—which elicited from the always sharp-tongued Glenn Gould the notorious quip that “Mozart died too late rather than too early”. The main reason so many of Mozart’s compositions did endure (while the likes of Ditters von Dittersdorf have been forgotten) is very simple: Mozart was a transcendent genius. He simply preferred to write lots and in a very accessible idiom, even as he occasionally ventured into ‘learned’ composition for his own pleasure and was very skilled at it. He was perennially short of money, as he enjoyed the good life and had no steady patron—he might have nodded in agreement at Heinlein’s statement that his favorite five words in the English language were ‘pay to the order of’.

At the other extreme stood Maurice Ravel. Nicknamed ‘the Swiss watchmaker’ by colleagues, he was a total perfectionist with a very modest output (after WW I, he averaged about one composition per year). Financially secure as a tenured professor of composition, he had no need to “compose to pay the bills”. In fact, he was as well known as an orchestrator of other people’s music as for his own compositions — Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition was originally solo piano music, which Ravel orchestrated. Impervious to others’ opinions but relentlessly self-critical, he quipped to fellow composer Arthur Honegger: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”


Anton Bruckner was eternally plagued by self-doubts. In response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues, he would endlessly revise his symphonic works  — for example, there are at least five extant versions of the First Symphony — in response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues.


The creative struggles of Beethoven in his major works — the symphonies and the 32 piano sonatas, which have been named “the New Testament of solo piano music” — are legend, as evident from the minefields of corrections and erasures in his manuscripts , which drove copyists and score engravers alike crazy.  The resulting financial woes he addressed in part through patronage, but also through a parallel “pay the bills” compositional output written to publisher’s order: folk song arrangements, variation cycles, and “Bagatelles” — short, inventive piano pieces accessible to a somewhat skilled amateur. Yes, even this archetype of the “artiste-demiurge” wrote to pay the bills sometimes! The writer who churns out popular romances or mysteries under one pen name in order to subsidize a more literary output under his/her own name took a page, so to speak, from Beethoven’s playbook.

Liszt is a special case that has no real parallel among fiction writers: a wildly popular concert virtuoso who wrote piano showpieces and arrangements of symphonic works for his own use in performance (making the most of his unique technical skills), then retired to focus on more profound compositions.

And then there was Johann Sebastian Bach. As Mauricio Kagel memorably put it, “Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but all believe in Bach”. A virtuoso on multiple instruments (not just keyboards), with an intellect that probably exceeded even Mozart’s, Bach was a scholar as much as an artist, and had an active interest in the practical side of instrument design. His work ethos struck an interesting balance.

In Bach’s days, one couldn’t live strictly off composing: Bach’s principal income streams were as a church organist (legendary in his day), a court musician, and eventually as the musical director and assistant principal of the St.-Thomas high school in Leipzig. (He generated secondary income streams from music all his married life, as an organ building consultant, as a reseller of Silbermann’s early pianofortes, and the like.) As part of his duties in Leipzig, for several years he wrote a fresh cantata every week [!], many of which have sadly been lost (though over 200 have been preserved). He was thus every bit capable of churning out works on demand on a tight production schedule. (To be sure,he routinely recycled material, and levels of thematic borrowing that nowadays would be considered plagiarism were accepted in his day.)

At the same time, at the works that mattered most to him, he worked slowly and painstakingly — the first autograph MS for The Art Of The Fugue, for instance, dates from 1741, while the final fugue was still unfinished at Bach’s death nine years later. Most unlike Beethoven, few erasures are evident in Bach’s manuscripts until his eyes started faltering near the end of his life: he would write the whole composition in his head and at the keyboard, then put it down on paper when it met his exacting standards of quality. Fairly little of his music was published during his lifetime, primarily cycles of keyboard works. Bach studied music of other composers with great attention and mined it for forms as well as themes (to which he applied his never-surpassed mastery of counterpoint), but was essentially indifferent to public acclaim or fashion: while he took his musical duties seriously, the very notion of writing to fit the popular fashion of the day was alien to him. At the end of the day, this devout Lutheran with an impressive collection of theological books wrote his major works S. D. G. (soli Dei gloria, for the glory of G-d alone), as he was wont to write on his manuscripts.

Coming back to Sarah’s “Write Like The Wind” post. She mentions that endless revising and agonizing about language will not be noticed by one’s readers. Like with so many things in life, the ‘law of diminishing returns’  — just like a $20m Stradivarius obviously will not sound 1000x better than a violin custom-built by a luthier for, say, $20K. Sure, there is a reader segment (yours truly included) that enjoys exquisitely crafted prose for its own sake. However, beyond a certain point one is better off finishing up and moving on to the next work. One would like to believe that there is a golden mean between assembly-line hack work on the one hand, and toxic perfectionism on the other hand.


Happy J. S. Bach Day!

Today, the first day of spring and (roughly) the vernal equinox, J. S. Bach would have been 326 if he still were alive. His body is gone, but his music lives on forever. “Bach is the beginning and end of all music” (Max Reger; more quotes about Bach here).

Bach was an avid experimenter with the musical technology of his day, and I’m sure he’d appreciate modern synthesizers. Below are two performance of one of his organ fugues (in G major, BWV 577, nicknamed “the jig” as it is in a jig/gigue rhythm): one on a conventional pipe organ, another on a battery of synthesizers.