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To the Girl Who Wants to Compose. Mrs. H.H.A. Beach

Especially Written for The Etude by the Distinguished American Composer


[Editor’s Note.—Mrs. Beach’s work is too well known to require special comment here. A short biography of her will be found in the Dictionary of Women Composers elsewhere in this issue.]

There was once a girl who said to me in an airy manner:

“Oh! anybody can write a song!”

If she had been a serious, earnest girl, and I had felt the slightest assurance of her sincerity of purpose, I should have taken up the cudgels at once and pounded her remark into as small fragments as I could make. For a girl of her type, I spared myself the trouble.

beach.jpgOf course, in a way, her remark is true. Anyone can write songs of a certain kind. It all depends upon what we consider a song. I have heard of many instances where the jingle of a poem would suggest some sort of a trumpery tune, even to an unmusical person. It would sometimes be easy for such an individual to borrow the talent of a real musician and have that trumpery melody written out in correct form. It would then be published, perhaps, with the name of the composer (?) attached. That is one way of writing songs. Also, that is one kind of song that sometimes gets itself written.

Then there is another kind of song. A young man goes into a restaurant, gives an order and, while waiting for his coffee, is seized with an idea. Having no music paper at hand, he catches up the bill of fare and scrawls at lightning speed on the back of it a song called the Erl-King.

Perhaps these two instances are as wide apart as anything in the way of song-writing could be. We can learn two things in thinking over these little stories. One is, that to a great genius, like Franz Schubert, composition is such an absolute necessity as a means of self-expression that no impediment of poor surroundings or any untoward circumstances can act as a barrier between him and his art. The other is (and perhaps here is where I would lay the greater emphasis) the possible lack of appreciation as to what composition really is.

In the course of the past few years, many girls have appealed to me for advice as to whether they should attempt composition or not. It is often tempting to dwell in imagination upon the joys of musical creation, upon the recognition by a widespread, admiring public of our efforts, possibly even to think of a financial return for our labors that would help over some hard place in life. When we read of the apparent ease and rapidity with which certain world-famous songs have been composed, we think, “Oh, if I could only have such a success, and why shouldn’t I.”

Learn to Spell First

I have always tried to impress upon my young friends the need of a thorough, technical equipment as a preparation for any work that is worth while. How would we regard a writer of either prose or poetry who had not even a rudimentary knowledge of spelling, grammar, orthography or style? Yet many people try to write music, and expect to succeed in winning recognition, when their sentences are about as correct as the speech of the woman, who, on being asked if she could supply corn-pone to a party of hungry travelers, said: “That is just about the only thing I haint got nawthin’ else but.”

If I could gather together all the young people who have appealed to me, I should say to them, first of all, “Begin right now to look at composition as a serious thing.” Music of a high order is so impalpable, so intangible, sometimes so indescribable! We cannot know, except in rare instances, from exactly what source we derive our inspiration. Composers are influenced in as many ways as there are composers. It might safely be said that no two people could work in exactly the same way, or would be stimulated by exactly the same impulse. That is one of the many wonderful aspects of musical creation. Some writers have been influenced at once by some tremendous happening in their lives, or in the world around them, and have been able to burst forth with some musical utterance that was directly the result of circumstances, Another composer might remain apparently unaffected by even the most terrific onslaught upon all that was deepest in his life, and years afterward give expression in music, perhaps unconsciously, to all that the experience had cost him. Here we are touching upon perhaps the most wonderful thing of all about musical composition. It may be not only the creation of an art-form, but a veritable autobiography, whether conscious or unconscious. It is so complex in its many-sidedness that we find it almost impossible to separate it into all its aspects, in order to consider them one by one. There is the intellectual side, the emotional, and what I should call the spiritual. All these, of course, could be subdivided almost infinitely.

To begin with the emotional—which is the side of music most easily understood by the average human being—music plays an enormous, part in our whole lives, from the lullabies which our mothers sing to us in our cradles to the funeral march played after we have reached the end of our earthly course. Even the most primitive peoples perform many of their daily acts to the accompaniment of music. In Labrador, even the Esquimaux children cannot play their little games without singing, and the people have songs descriptive of the returning hunter, the wedding, the ancestral deeds of valor, the battles of former epochs, in fact of everything connected with their lives. The Zuño has his call to the awakening at dawn when the Sun-priests march through the pueblo, chanting the praises of the Sun-god, and urging the people to arise and salute him. Almost everywhere in the world there is dancing of some kind, accompanied by music. As for the influence of music upon soldiers, it is too well known to require even mention. The appeal to our patriotism which is being made all over the land, through the influence of community singing, is growing in its intensity to an extent almost incalculable. All this has to do with the emotional side of music.

Then there is the intellectual side. This can only be best understood by those who have entered in all seriousness into the composition of music in its most abstract forms. At the same time, knowledge of this is being more and more widely disseminated, through the medium of lectures in our clubs and courses in our schools and universities. The study of musical form can be made as fascinating as any other branch, if the teacher has the true knack of imparting the knowledge.

Then there is what I have called the spiritual side of music. Of course, this has two aspects, the point of view of the listener, and that of the creator. There is music which uplifts us to a point far above and beyond the mere emotional plane. Many works of Bach, César Franck, Beethoven, above all, Mozart, seem to carry us to a height where we leave everything earthly behind.

Shall I Compose?

Now these are just a few thoughts which the consideration of music suggests. At least they may serve as a reply to the frivolous maiden who says that anyone can write songs. When young people ask me my opinion as to whether they had better undertake composition or not, I always say, “Certainly, if it means anything to you that will be worth working for. How much do you care about expressing yourself in music? How much patience have you—how much persistence? Can you face disappointment? Are you prepared to take the thing seriously, or do you merely want to dabble in it? If you mean to be serious, and love the work, not only for the sake of what it may mean to you, as a means of expressing your own ideas, but for the insight it will give you into the workings of master minds, by all means enter into it. I believe there is nothing that helps us to understand the great works of genius so well, as to attempt writing ourselves. Above, all, I would say, ‘Try to acquire a good foundation of well assimilated knowledge of musical construction, and the technic that is absolutely necessary. We cannot put our musical ideas into any shape that can reach other people, if we do not know at least how to dot our “i’s” and cross our “t’s.’”

Another thing I would urge upon young aspirants for musical fame in composition is to begin with small things, and do them as  well as they can be done. Of course, we all know that there is a simplicity only attainable by a genius who may have reached that apparent lucidity through devious paths of most complicated work. Such pieces, for instance, as MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose, or Schumann’s Traümerei, may sound very simple, but a careful analysis of their perfection of detail and proportion shows the ease only reached by perfect mastery.

Popular Music

I world not discourage for a moment the writing of so-called popular music. It gives a great deal of innocent pleasure to multitudes of people, and there is no reason why it should not be thoroughly good of its kind.

Just one point more. I believe it was Rubinstein who said, “To compose is a pleasure—to publish is a responsibility.” When we think of the tons of music which have been already issued in print, perhaps it is as well for us to pause and remember Rubinstein’s remark before rushing our compositions out to the public. Still, “there is always room at the top,” and always a place for good music in any form or of any kind. Keep on writing, young people, as much as you like, so long as you realize both “the responsibility” and “the pleasure,” and so long as you are willing to give only of your best in every respect.

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