Truisms of the Profession

John Updike, in his long essay on writers’ last works in this week’s New Yorker, said something about writing novels that I’ve long believed was true about writing music: “It’s like sex, either easy or impossible.” The less severe way I’ve always put it to my students was, I can write a good piece in three weeks, but a bad one takes me six months.

Schoenberg said something to that effect, when asked about composing without inspiration: “Impossible!” And yet, to counter that, I’ve long repeated two helpful slogans from Virgil Thomson:

Ninety percent of composing is keeping your ass in the chair.


My muse and I had an appointment, and at least I showed up.

The point is, of course (I’m learning I’d better always spell out my points), is that composing without inspiration may be a grind, but the surest way to catch inspiration is to be sitting in your chair when it shows up.

Come to think of it, I’d better qualify even that. Composition isn’t always easy in the sense that it flows smoothly. For instance, in writing my piece Chicago Spiral, which is a nine-part triple canon at the major second in 14/8 meter, I spent three days working on one three-measure passage. (The three days were December 24-26, 1991). But it was because the form was so strict that I couldn’t get the notes to come out right, and it wasn’t hard to work on in the sense that I couldn’t keep engaged; on the contrary, I couldn’t leave it alone, and started up again as soon as the Christmas presents were opened. In that sense, working on it was easy, though the problem was difficult.


  1. bill says

    most likely where artists get the reputation for doing nothing…
    “no, i really do have to get home so i can sit in front of the computer for six hours in case something happens”.
    sounds like total b.s. of course to people who are either ‘working’ or ‘not working’.

  2. Peter says

    I once read an anecdote about Mendelssohn written by someone who had interrupted him while he was at work composing. According to the visitor, Mendelssohn said he’d only be a few minutes, and for the visitor to sit there till he finished the section he was on. The visitor noted that Mendelssohn was writing a multi-part piece DOWN the score page, ie completing one bar for each of the parts before moving onto the next bar.
    This seems to me to indicate that Mendelssohn had the piece entirely worked out in his head before writing any of it down. This is how many mathematicians work — working out proofs mentally before committing pen to paper. Working it all out in one’s head, of course, before writing anything, would not necessarily make composition easier.

  3. says

    “I am at my desk each morning at 9 o’clock, and my muse has learned to be prompt.” — Tchaikovsky
    Sounds like VT had heard this one too.
    KG replies: I can hear some places in Tchaikovsky’s music where his muse evidently took the day off.

  4. Richard says

    Sometimes I wonder if Tchaikovsky had a muse at all, or just a cute little pixie.
    KG replies: I don’t know if Tchaikovsky’s cleaning lady did windows, but I know his muse didn’t do development sections.

  5. Richard says

    Supposedly, Saint-Saëns said that he wrote music like an apple tree produces apples. I know that there’s got to be a joke in there somewhere!