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Why does a composer revise a work? by Arthur Butterworth

Within only a few weeks of the war ending in 1945 it was possible to go to orchestral concerts in Hanover. So, for the first time in my life I could hear a German orchestra play some of the great classics, presumably one would think, in the authentic way their composers had intended them to be performed. One of the more memorable was the Schumann Fourth Symphony in D minor. This work made a great impression on me so that a year or two later, learning that it was to be heard at a Hallé concert in Manchester, full of great enthusiasm I went to hear it. Curiously, however, it did not sound quite the same; yet it was impossible to say in what way it was different from the Hanover performance. It was not until quite a long time afterwards that I discovered that Schumann had revised it. Obviously I must have heard a different version in Manchester from the one performed in Germany. Yet the differences between then are really quite subtle and probably many listeners would not notice were they to hear both versions. The question of which version was best became the cause of one of the very few unhappy differences of opinion, an argument which even threatened to bring to an end the intimate forty-year friendship between Brahms and the composer's widow, Clara Schumann. So why did Schumann choose to re-score it ?

It might reasonably be asked why any composer, once having completed a work, and having had it performed, should want to alter it. But the question does not take account of the dilemma of infinite choice that faces every composer - and probably every other creator of a work of art. Creating a musical work is not an exact science, (although some avant garde music does appear to be inexorably pre-planned to conform to a rigid and immutable blue-print). To put it very simply: having conceived of a musical idea, a melody or rhythmic figure perhaps, how does one follow it up ? What harmony to clothe it in ? How to develop it further? All manner of possibilities are likely to occur to the inventive mind; which to choose is a dilemma because there are almost an infinite number of equally desirable alternatives. One would like to explore virtually every possibility in turn just to see what they might lead to. In one limited sense this is what happens when, having written the exposition of - say - a classical symphony and formally repeated it, the composer then has the fascinating task of re-directing the closing passage of his original exposition and turning it into a completely different harmonic direction. A good example of this is in Brahms First Symphony. It used at one time to be customary, at least in this country, to omit the repeat of the exposition and go straight into that marvellously bright and glistening B-major development section. Making the repeat as Brahms intended, takes the listener back from the dark E-flat minor modulation to its original C-minor. Then all the exposition is heard again, and the anticipation of continuing the E-flat minor section, when it is reached for the second time, is wonderfully surprised by the quite different turn it takes - instead of back to C-minor, to B-major - after the second time round.

This demonstrates just one alternative that the composer is able to choose. Were symphonic form endless, and the symphony play for several hours, probably dozens of other alternatives could be offered. In fact this is not so far-fetched an idea as might be supposed. Quite a few twentieth century scores have offered a kind of free-choice to the performer as to which page of music he might decide to play next, so that every performance would be a unique experience.

In general, however, the composer does not delegate the choice of design to the performer but makes a carefully-calculated decision himself to twist and turn the course the music shall take. Probably most composers, having completed a work leave it at that. To alter it is after all quite a big undertaking requiring immense labour and mental effort. (Unlike local authorities who seem to revel in spending vast sums of public money in altering road schemes only recently installed, and then deciding to do something quite the opposite twelve months later!) Some composers appear to have been endowed with a gift of spontaneous, heaven-sent inspiration that just cannot be improved upon: Schubert was one of these. It is said that he could never be bothered to revise anything; his time could be better spent in writing something else. Probably most of the older composers were like this: life was too short to agonise over whether they had got things right the first time; far better write an entirely new work. But in later times very many composers have been beset by self-doubts, given to re-considering their original ideas. In general this has been to everyone's advantage. Bruckner was an inveterate reviser, even to the extent of replacing a whole movement by a completely new idea. Listening to the original versions of Sibelius's Violin Concerto, or the Fifth Symphony, few listeners would deny that the revised versions of these works, which are now the only authentic ones heard the world over, are infinitely preferable to the flawed original ideas. Stravinsky's revision of "The Firebird" is vastly more practical in performance.

Consider car design: a new model is put on sale and is well-liked by the public, but within a short period it has been up-dated and all kinds of minor improvements made so that it is quickly accepted as a much better vehicle altogether. The analogy might seem to be a bit crude, but the principle is the same: if a creator of vision conceives of an idea, the imaginative spur that first motivated it does not cease but goes on considering what other path could have been taken once the way had been tentatively explored. Among contemporary composers Pierre Boulez is one who appears never to want to regard a work as finished but gives notice that he is likely to up-date an original idea that has otherwise already become accepted into the canon.

However, one practical consideration perhaps inhibits many present day composers from making drastic amendments to already-performed or published works, Getting a first performance is hard enough, but persuading concert organisers to promote a second is infinitely more difficult if not virtually impossible. Walton revised the Viola Concerto - but I prefer the original scoring - and Vaughan Williams consistently altered the orchestration of things once he had heard them publicly performed. This is a luxury that I myself have often wished might be possible, for there are a few works that, on reflection, I have sometimes thought could be improved, even if only in small, minute detail. After the première of the First Symphony in 1957, Sir John Barbirolli suggested that I might take notice of a general critical opinion and revise the ending of the slow movement; this I did, and it proved to be good advice. Not so with some of the other works - especially the Violin Concerto - which in spite of having revised the first movement, and hopefully enhanced its structure, it still awaits a soloist, a conductor and an orchestral promoter who will give this new version a hearing.

Of course, it has to be admitted that making minor revisions is not the same as a wholesale re-designing of a work's structure. In the latter case it might be reasonable to ask why a composer should not be satisfied with his first creation if that is what, at the time, he intended. Some great works of music of the past, are indeed, often by common consent, flawed in one respect or another, but they are accepted for what they are: often expressions of a spontaneous act of imagination, and as such are perhaps better left as they are.

The musical form best adapted to trying out tempting alternative possibilities is of course the "Variation". In a sense all musical design is a matter of applying variation, but some music is specifically intended to employ this as an artistic end in itself. So that, whereas in a symphonic development, a theme evolves and becomes subtly changed as it progresses, the basic idea remains more or less the same and contributes to the ultimate realisation or fulfilment of a particular kind of design. "Variation" as a musical form however, takes an original idea - often quite a short theme - and treats it to all manner of contrasting, and unrelated treatment, rather like a patchwork quilt, the only common element being the shape or basic size of the patches that make up the design. Symphonic design on the other hand is a unity made up of subtle, but always related, inner variation of a main theme or group of themes.

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