There are a couple of possible commissions on the drawing board at the moment and, for better or for worse, I tend to get sketching as soon as those possibilities arise, rather than awaiting final confirmation. Like many writers, I suspect, the pieces I have started far outnumber the pieces I have finished, and whether that is a good or bad thing is open for discussion. After all, writing is writing, even if form only truly comes together and can be appreciated when a piece is done.
In the midst of other bits of catching up yesterday I began work editing a text which may end up being used for a piece towards the end of the year. I read a piece in one of the papers recently which took gentle issue with the practice of most composers editing and chopping the texts they set. Britten did so with the poetry he set in the War Requiem, for example, and Handel’s choice of texts for Messiah is so inventive as to strip many passages of their original meaning and import and impose something entirely new upon them.
I cannot remember now which poet it is who said something along the lines of “they have chopped two lines off my poetry, how would they like it if I chopped two bars out of their music?”, but I do not think that the comparison is a fair one. Form in poetry, metre, stanza and all the rest, is articulated is such a different manner from form in music, and, simply, some words are just too – what’s the right term? – wordy to be set in a convincing and musical manner. One of Finzi’s great triumphs was to be able to set the words of Hardy in a way that makes them sound entirely natural rather than the gnarly, knotty thoughts that they are. Heavens, I set three of his poems myself, so I know some of the problems involved.
The text I was working with yesterday, by one of the great wordsmiths of our language, is a beautiful, balanced and poised bit of writing on the page and in the speech, but it would make for a terribly dull and overlong piece of music were it set as is. It is the composer’s duty, I think, to cut and cull, pare down to the lean meat while still retaining the essence and core of the writer’s thought. It is part of the challenge, and realising that a good text for setting is not necessarily the same as a good text per se is an important step along that road.