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At a recent Schubert Club concert…

Barry Kempton and I agreed about the Howells Clarinet Sonata: as a piece it is not quite satisfactory. Barry mentioned a recent conversation with pianist Michael McHale in which McHale compared editors of music and the word. Writers and editors often have a collaborative relationship;  editors for music publishers are more hands-off.

edited page with red pencilThat’s been my experience, too, though I have worked with some fine editors. Perhaps it has something to do with training. Writers get used to collaboration. Workshops are held in groups. Many poets and writers rely on the resonance of reading their work to their fellows. Composers, at least in my time, have been trained in the applied-music fashion: you go in for your private lesson and a teacher comments on and corrects your work. I’ve found that editors of music are reluctant to comment on content. Occasionally I’ll ask directly for advice and receive it, but unsolicited suggestions from publishers has been rare. I suspect that a publisher will simply reject a work rather than engage in dialogue.

Performances don’t always generate useful information. Leaving critics aside, performances are too much about the composer’s connection to the audience, which has shown up to support or to issue a thumbs-up/thumbs–down. Then, of course, there is the value placed on novelty in general. New music may be considered to be beyond criticism: what is there to compare it to? New music, the argument goes, is a field of discovery, like science. But there is no peer review in music, and the notion of progress in art was laid to rest long ago.

DET in VW bug

Montana-bound in 1982

When I’m writing words—these included—I’m grateful for advice. And as difficult as it can be to listen to an opinion, it’s sometimes important to hear it. My first experience with a skilled, active editor was reassuring. I felt like I was riding in a Lexus with multiple air-bags, rather than my old VW bug with no heat and a missing fender, beginning to shimmy as I hit 55 mph.

Michael Steinberg, in his book, The Concerto, muses about Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto: “If I could ask Barber one question. . . .  it would be, why the piano? Most of what the piano does here sounds as though it belongs on the harp; the piano has an odd makeshift sound, as though the pianist were pinch-hitting for the harpist, who had got stuck in traffic and hadn’t made it to the concert.”

I think editors can be more active. And composers can be more open. With that in mind, here are some humble suggestions, from the admittedly perverse editor in me:


Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Verehrter Herr,

What have you given the tromba player? It’s the musical equivalent of a backflip followed by a triple Salchow. Players will waste their precious lives trying to master this part. Transpose the piece to D major. Use traverso instead of recorder. In that key, the trumpet part will be only a little more taxing than of your B-minor Mass, which is brutal enough. (See Bryan Proksch’s comprehensive article on this problem-piece at historicbrass.org. View a marvelous performance on natural trumpet on YouTube.)

Bruckner, Symphonies 0-8

Lieber Toni,

The music is beautiful, inimitable. But let’s reduce it all by 30%. You can do it easily by cutting the third themes, which were never a good idea. Remove the lumbering orchestral unisons entirely. And for godssake, get rid of the clog-dancing in the scherzos. No. 9 is about right—unfinished. Write more motets.

From a sincere fan,

Everything I’ve ever sung or heard by John Tavener

Sir John,

The problem with this music is that I’ve only taken two steps when I see what’s ahead: the terrain is rough, the elevation increasing, and there’s no vista at the top of the hill.

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