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Shall I Compose?


In the preface to the collection of “National, Patriotic and Typical Airs of all Lands,” recently published by order of Secretary Tracy, of the Navy Department, the compiler, Band Master Sousa, says that it was his intention to give a few examples of the best modern patriotic songs of our land, but that he was compelled to abandon his project, for the reason that he discovered such a great number that no volume of ordinary size could contain them. This calls attention to the fact that, besides about a score of American composers who are generally known to the musical public, there must be an army of minor aspirants, who write melodies in comparative obscurity, somewhat in the way in which European folk songs were composed by humble musicians or amateurs whose names are now unknown. Indeed, I am convinced that, just as every journalist of ability is supposed to have in his brain or his note-books the plan for a book that he believes will make its mark in the literary world, so every ambitious music teacher and amateur has dreams of becoming renowned some day as a composer; and these dreams, with their attendant pleasures of hope, atone for many weary hours spent over dull pupils.

It is probable, or rather it is certain, that the number of these aspirants to fame would be considerably smaller if more of them knew against what enormous odds they have to struggle. How great these odds are, can be faintly realized by looking at the Publishers’ Trade List Annual for 1890. It is almost as big as a Webster Unabridged, measuring about six inches from cover to cover, and its thousands of pages contain nothing but the titles and prices of books published by the leading houses in America. England, France and Germany have even larger lists, and each of these four countries adds an annual number of about five thousand volumes—or twenty thousand new volumes a year. For any book to become especially conspicuous among all these rivals, old and new, it must be very remarkable or very lucky indeed.

If our music publishers made up a similar collection of their catalogues it would not, perhaps, be quite as large as this Literary Trade List, because music publishers are less enterprising than book publishers in handling new writers; but it would still be a most bulky volume, the more formidable in view of the fact that a hundred persons take an interest in literature to one who cares for music.

Faint hearts will be prompted by a consideration of these facts to answer the question, “Shall I Compose?” in the negative. But faint heart ne’er won fair lady or fame, and no one who really has the creative spark in his breast will allow bulky Trade List volumes or other obstacles to arrest his march for a moment. There is consolation in the thought that most of these countless publications are as ephemeral as the articles in a daily paper. Like annual flowers they bloom once, and then disappear from public notice; and very few indeed attain the dignity of perennials. But it is no reason for not raising new beds of flowers every year, to say that this year’s pansies and roses will be just like last year’s. We take pleasure in them all the same, and once in a while a new variety makes its appearance which we all hail with delight. Heine’s “Thou art like a Flower” has been set to music 167 times, and some of these melodies are excellent; but perhaps the 168th will be better still, and displace all the others. What is true in literature is true in music, that any given idea is his who expresses it in the most poetic manner. Every one has a right to enter the contest, and to the victor belongs the spoils, pecuniary or otherwise.

This question of “spoils” naturally presents itself first in a country where the dollar is the national fetish. Fortunes can be won with music, as with books. The composer of “Listen to the Mocking Bird” has made more than one hundred thousand dollars with that one simple piece, and Milloecker has received half that sum from America alone as his share of the profits on the performances and solos of selections from his latest and by no means best operetta, “Poor Jonathan.” Excellence, indeed has unfortunately very little to do with success in literature and music, in very many cases, and it might almost be set down as an axiom, especially in music, that the best pieces do not enrich their composer during his lifetime, but their publishers after the composer’s death. This is true in the case of almost all the German composers, from Bach to Wagner. On the other hand it cannot be denied that some improvement has been made in this matter, and meritorious compositions do not have to wait quite so long for recognition as they did during the first half of this century and before.

Teachers and others who wish to compose for profit are too apt to be discouraged if their first three or four pieces are returned by the publishers as not available. Perhaps they would be less surprised if they knew that even in the literary world, where the demand for new matter is so much greater than in the musical world, not more than one novel is published of every fifty that are written, and that of the manuscripts sent to magazine editors hardly two per cent. are accepted! But it is well to remember the lesson taught by that little verse which we all memorized from our first reader: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” For not only may the tenth piece succeed, where the preceding nine failed, but its success may be so great as to float those nine also, so that they have not been kept in the desk in vain. This happens in the life of most composers, and accounts for the fact that often an “opus 20” appears to be (and really is) an earlier and less mature work than an “opus 5.” Like young doctors and lawyers, composers must expect to wait some years before their labors become remunerative.

It must be said frankly, however, that no one whose sole or chief motive in writing music is money making will ever turn out a great composer. A great artist is guided by nobler motives, and never hesitates to sacrifice his personal comfort and income to his artistic ideals; like Wagner, for instance, who might have revelled in wealth all his life had he continued to write operas in the style of “Rienzi,” but who prefered (sic) poverty in exile, combined with the liberty to compose according to his own ideals. For humbler artists there are three motives for composing, each nobler than the lust for lucre—namely, the desire to benefit one’s self, the desire to benefit one’s country, and thirdly, the pleasure of creating. As my space is almost exhausted, I can consider each of these but briefly.

It will benefit a teacher or amateur to compose, even if he never gets fame or profit in return. Just as no one can half appreciate the full charm and power of the literary style of Shakespeare, Heine or Gautier, unless he has himself tried to write poems, plays or stories, so no musician can fully appreciate the beauties of Bach, Schubert or Chopin unless he has tried his hand at composing, or at least at copying, like Cherubini, who copied the scores of the great masters all his life, and at his death left about four thousand folios of such copies.

That a musician can benefit his country by composing seems less obvious, but it is no less true. For are not the Germans, the French and the Italians proud, and justly proud of their great and minor musicians and their works? Is not America proud of the great men of letters she has produced? And will she not be equally proud of the great musicians whom she will doubtless give birth to during the coming centuries? Therefore, will your humble contribution be gratefully received, and if it proves of lasting value, you will be regarded as one of your country’s benefactors.

The final and conclusive answer to the question “Shall I Compose,” will however depend on the way in which composing affects each individual. If the work seems nothing but toil, trouble and drudgery, drop it, and take up something more congenial. Remember what the poet has said—that if you take no pleasure in creating, no one will take pleasure in listening to you. After all, Schopenhauer was right in insisting that not fame, but the pleasure of creating is an author’s chief reward. Fame is an illusion, but the pleasure of creating is a real experience which can be indefinitely repeated by those who have the artistic faculty. It was this pleasure that consoled the great composers for the neglect which was their lot during their lifetime. In a subsequent article I shall discuss the question: “What Shall I Compose?”

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