Thursday, January 30, 2020

987 Words About Almost Finishing the Piano Quintet

Brahms' original manuscript for a passage in his Piano Quintet in F Minor

When you're a composer and the end is in sight on a piece you've been working on for over three years, especially considering you've been thinking about it, one way or another, for decades, it's easy to become excited – “yes,” you think, “the piece is almost finished!” – but there's still so much to be done. It's not just more creative work, filling out everything from beginning to end: there's the busy-work of realizing the sketches, making the necessary final revisions, then copying the score and parts for a performance.

Following my back injury after dealing with 30” of snow in January, 2016, and while recovering from the inevitable back surgery, I began thinking of what new creative projects I'd want to focus on. Eventually, the pain had become too intense to concentrate on much of anything, but my mind was full of 'general' ideas.

Despite having been retired several years earlier, I never acclimated to the idea I could now compose whenever I wanted to (there had been numerous issues about that which I needn't go into, here). Was there some “Bucket List” – Things I'd Like to Compose Before I Die – I should be keeping and checking things off?

Ever since the late-'70s, asked to write incidental music for it, I've wanted to turn Euripides' The Bacchae into an opera. Whenever I considered it, it seemed the greatest challenge with the least practicality.

Then there was a piece for English Horn and orchestra, not necessarily a concerto but something a little less mellow than standard English horn repertoire like Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela or Copland's Quiet City. I'm not sure when I first thought about writing this, probably back in the late-'70s, too: I'd even sketched the ending! In 2000, I began a 21-minute work for violin and orchestra inspired by the Creation of the Universe opening Tolkien's Silmarillion. But its extensive part for English horn, a secondary soloist, proved more stimulating.

And then, last but not least, there's the matter of a piano quintet since I knew I'd been thinking about one even before I kept my 2002 String Quartet from inadvertently turning into one. Considering the four great ones by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, and Shostakovich, there's plenty of historical baggage to worry about there, right?

I recalled taking the sketches for this unnamed Silmarillion piece into work one night, leaving it on the desk I shared with my daytime office-mate, Ellen Hughes, a long time friend and long-suffering colleague. Seeing these e.h. markings everywhere, she wondered what her initials were doing there. I explained it meant “the English Horn part.” She told me, “You should dedicate it to me: after all, my initials are all over it!” – and we both laughed. The “Silmarillion Piece” went nowhere, but the English horn remained on my mind.

When Ellen died in June, 2015, leaving a big hole in so many lives, I began thinking of a “memorial piece,” something that would be a personal statement just between the two of us. The “English Horn Piece” was the most logical choice, becoming a set of variations with orchestra, an aria over a chaconne.

It wasn't until Summer, 2017, however, that I started realizing I had some ideas that needed a lot of working out. In fact, “work” was the problem: it had always come so easily before. Giving up composing so many times, I realized it would take lots of work to renew my old spark of creativity.

The most realistic choice, the initials “E.H.” aside, wasn't really an orchestral work with limited performance options, but a piano quintet. It gave me more control over how I could explore these new ideas.

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Inspiration is simplistically perceived as that magical spark in the imagination that gives birth to a melody and the composer then takes that melody and, by adding others, turns it into a new composition. Inspiration can also be the establishment of a challenge, perhaps something entirely intellectual, then finding the solution that meets the challenge.

Maurice Ravel, who enjoyed clockwork toys, once said he'd finished his Piano Trio and all he needed now was the themes. Yet listening to Ravel's music, you wouldn't think he's more “brain” than “heart.”

To many, that sounds artificial – books could be written about art versus artifice: you can't build clockwork toys without meticulous planning. Tonality (like “clockwork”) requires certain expectations: intuitive creativity wasn't in Ravel's fastidious nature.

So rather than figuring out where it should go, he built a frame for it and filled it in as needed.

For over twenty years, I'd never struggled with what a mid-life crisis style-change required, the complete rethinking of my musical style, figuring out what I found dissatisfying and what I could do about it. If I used four triads in succession using all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, what about cadences? What about tonality?

Without getting into the complicated theory behind it (I considered it a new approach to tonality still using all 12 pitches), I took Ravel's advice about a structural frame and then filled it in.

It turned out to be more challenging than I thought: there would be four movements over a projected length of 25 minutes, but those individual movements were to be broken into shards and put back together in some kind of musical mosaic. I have three fat ring-binders full of sketches to attest to the struggle.

Eventually, the piece became a labyrinth – tonality providing the path through its winding structure – where I would meet friends and family who've died before, a memory piece in an abstract, not a literal, sense.

I became easily distracted, especially given certain health issues, and once put it aside for a while to finish another novel but finally, eventually, after three years, it happened: I realized “It's almost finished!”

The light's now at the end of this long creative tunnel, something in every one of my Piano Quintet's 375 measures.

- Dick Strawser

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