Why aren't most virtuosos composers?

February 2, 2007 at 10:40 PM · I was wondering and this question has stuck to me for months.Why aren't most violin virtuosos also composers? I mean with the rigurious training that they go through to develope their musicality and hours of practice,music theory, solfage music history,sight reading,etc,etc,etc, combined with the natural talent that is a must in order to be a sucessful international artist.Few classical artists are also composers I assume with all of the studies and training mentioned above composition would be a breeze for soloists.

Replies (72)

February 2, 2007 at 08:03 PM · This is Lewis I finally changed the profile so I won't make my mom look bad.

February 2, 2007 at 10:56 PM · "This is Lewis I finally changed the profile so I won't make my mom look bad." At least you realise that you were making her look bad...

As for the composers, let me put it this way. All of us on this board speak English (well, most of us), but were we asked to write a book it probably wouldn't be a best seller.

Knowing the elements is one thing, but knowing how to put it together is something completely different. There were players in the past who knew how to do this - Fritz Kreisler, Sarasate etc. But if they have never done it before, there is no chance that any work one of today's violinists produce will be any worth listening to.

Composition is always seen as a seperate major in conservatories - because you're meant to spend your time practising your composing skills. It takes practice, because you need to practice making melodies, harmonising them, developing them (often the second hardest after making the melody).

Why don't you give it a try. Try compose something. But here's a hint: Start small. Try writing small works for a string quartet. Work within a specific form, such as binary, ternary, air and variations etc. I guarantee you that if you tried to write a Violin Concerto, or even worse, a Symphony, as your first composition, it will fall in a heap and you'll wish you never wasted your time on it.

Composition is a very hard skill to master, even if you do have the knowledge that we get in universities and conservatories. If you don't practice it, it'll be just like if you don't practice the violin - a four letter word starting with C

February 2, 2007 at 11:56 PM · Hey Lewis:

This is your very best question yet (almost a pity you didn't give your mom credit for it;)

Seriously it is a good observation!

February 2, 2007 at 11:57 PM · I know Augustin Hadelich, who just recently won the Indianapolis Competition, composes and performs his own works. I'm sure there are others out there. I've heard of a several soloists writing their own cadenzas to concertos. Joshua Bell wrote his own cadenza for Mendelssohn Concerto.

February 3, 2007 at 12:30 AM · Hi Lewis, congrats on updating your profile. :)

The question of "why aren't most virtuosos also composers" is just like asking "why aren't most composers also virtuosos." Composing and performing are very different skills, and it's rare to find them both at a high level in the same person. (Amy--have you heard any of Augustin's works? I'm very curious!)

That said, I DO wish we had more composer-performers these days, and I do wonder why they were so much more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Oh Liszt, Wieniawski, Chopin and Paganini, where are you now...? :)

February 3, 2007 at 01:43 AM · Perhaps one reason why there aren't so many composer-performers is that classical audiences are, for the most part, not as receptive to new works as they once were. Of course, it's also true that one has to train (very hard) to be a composer, and the time spent composing is time not spent practicing Paganini caprices...

There are actually lots of performer-composers around, but for the most part they aren't mainstream classical artists: Mark O'Connor (violin), Meredith Monk (voice), Steve Mackey (electric guitar), Pauline Oliveros (accordion), Evan Ziporyn (clarinet), Kurt Rohde (viola), Dan Trueman (Hardanger fiddle and electric violin), Steve Reich (percussion), and the late Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon), among many others.

Among conductors, it's a slightly different story: Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Peter Eotvos are well-known as composers too.

February 3, 2007 at 02:25 AM · I really do not agree with most that has been written. Some of the great violinist of the past have written for the instrument and have done so well: Sarasate, Kreisler, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, etc…

There really is no reason why some of the great players of today could not do the same. When you go buy a Larry Carlton album you hear his compositions. And the fact that he is one of the best Jazz players to have ever played the guitar has not kept him from doing so.

I honestly think that most other genres of music laugh at us for either listening to the same pieces played over and over again by different players, or for listening to modern compositions that are essentially A-tonal.

The real reason for why the greats of today are not composing is the fact that they do not have to; no one else is doing so. But one day a great player will write some great stuff for the instrument and because of this he will dominate violin music. Perhaps then the others will have to wake up.

Until then the most meaningful violinist of our time are the Sarasate, Kreisler, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, etc., because they played and contributed great stuff for the instrument.

Now I know that most will not accept this because most of us in the classical world cannot see past our noses. Most in the classical world, and I surely thought this way for most of my playing career, cannot handle anything but the same stuff that they have listened to for who knows how long. Time for us to wake up!

February 3, 2007 at 02:36 AM · "most of us in the classical world cannot see past our noses"?

First of all, I can see well past my nose, thank you very much, and most of my musical friends and colleagues can as well. The problem of new music is more complicated than it might seem.

In my exceedingly humble opinion, the root of the problem is the general public's ambivalence towards "New Music". Thanks to the radical atonalists and the deliberately obscure avant-garde, many people now think of "New Music" as something ugly, elitist, weird, scary and thoroughly unappealing.

The attitude of the general public leads to the attitude of the record companies, who at the end of the day are just looking to make money. Why expend a lot of effort on promoting new music, discovering new composers and engendering a thriving new-music culture when they can make ten times as much money with yet another recording of Tchaik 6? Of course there are independent labels and subsets of the big ones that DO deal in new music, but they are unfortunately rather far off the radar most of the time. In the modern world most people get their music from a stereo, not in the concert hall, so the focus of the big record companies does much to determine the popular taste.

Where does this leave an aspiring composer! "It's too hard to be a composer...no one will play my music...no one wants any new music...art is dead...they say there are no more masterpieces to be written." A prominent composer whose name escapes me at the moment (I'm tempted to say Shchedrin?) actually did say that a few years ago, that there are no more masterworks to be written, that great music is spent, has run its course, la commedia e finita.

I believe that is not true, but something big has to happen. We need a new direction in music and, more importantly, someone who can bring it into every concert hall in every corner of the world. We need a composer-performer-philosopher-conductor-manifesto writer-trailblazer of some sort--essentially, we need Liszt. (Bartók came close, but unfortunately he is no longer around.) But a Liszt comes along only once in a few hundred years...so what to do?

February 3, 2007 at 02:58 AM · Oh dear God. Forgive the screwball rant, guys, I've had my nose buried in a biography of Liszt lately and it's messing with my mind.

February 3, 2007 at 05:10 AM · "I honestly think that most other genres of music laugh at us for either listening to the same pieces played over and over again by different players, or for listening to modern compositions that are essentially A-tonal."

In my experience, people from non-classical genres who listen to music thoughtfully have a great deal of respect for what classical musicians do, and the same is true for thoughtful classical musicians listening to music from non-classical genres.

There's more to it than just the open-mindedness of the listening public -- I think that classical musicians (including, but not limited to the avant-gardists, who get an unfairly bad rap) have often done a very poor job of articulating to their audiences what it is that they're trying to do with their music, how to listen to their music, and why people should listen. It's hard to appreciate a piece of music if you have no idea what to listen for, or how the musicians are trying to express something.

A young virtuoso with new compositional ideas would be far more likely to present his or her music in a listening culture that was receptive to that music, but we shouldn't blame the audiences for the absence of that culture. Audiences willing to listen to new music are out there -- the Bang On A Can marathon concerts are filled with people, and there are plenty of people who mostly listen to jazz or rock or hip-hop looking for new, intelligent, and emotionally powerful music, which classical music can be (in spades!) Classical musicians need to do a better job of finding those people.

Not sure that I agree about another Liszt being the answer, but it probably wouldn't hurt. :^)

February 3, 2007 at 03:42 AM · I'm not sure how many concerts Paganini, Viextemps, Wieniawski, Ysaye, Kreisler, etc. gave per year. The virtuosos of today can give upwards of 200-250 concerts a year on every continent of the world because of how accessible and quick airlines make world travel. Now factor in that these same players have to play a good chunk of repertoire from each of the violinists composers we've named, plus a dozen mainstream composers, plus dozens of others. Not only play the rep, but practice enough to have it at their fingertips. Some soloists perform 15-20 different concertos every year, plus ecores, plus recital repertoire that changes 2-3 times a year. Most of us never learn all of this (just a sample of what a soloist might play in a year): 5 Mozart concerti, Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bartok #2, Paganini #1, Wieniawski #2, Prokofiev #1, Dvorak, Shostakovich #1. Yet some soloists may perform a cycle similar to it every year, plus their recitals and chamber concerts. Compare this to what Paganini played...6 of his own concerti and about a dozen encore pieces, with considerably less performances per year than the average soloist. The other virtuosi we've mentioned didn't even come close either.

Add this to the reasons listed above and I think it provides a logical explanation.

February 3, 2007 at 04:21 AM · In the past the outstanding musicians were complete musicians. They did it all. They composed, they performed, they taught, they often were conductors or scholars.

Among the great composers of the past, many were outstanding virtuosi, mostly as pianists (or keyboardists) -- including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Saint Saens, Strauss, Debussy, Prokofiev, Bartok, Liszt, Rachmaninoff. Other composers were important conductors: Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Rachmaninov. Others were writers, critics and scholars, including Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms.

In the past most of the great violinists were also composers, some great or very good: Vivaldi, Corelli, Locatelli, Nardini, Leclair, Viotti, Spohr, De Beriot, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ysaye, Kreisler. Others were not such good composers, but nevertheless, they were composers: Kreutzer, Rode, Ernst, Joachim, etc.

It is only in the twentieth century that we have become so specialized that one can hardly think of a composer or a performer who is a complete musician in the sense that the earlier composers were. Leonard Bernstien and John Williams would be the exceptions.

In the non-classical arenas of jazz, rock and pop, the situation is much healthier. many, perhaps most pop artists composer their own music -- some better some worse, but they are in there doing it.

I have often wondered where are the violinist composers of today?? Did the line come to an end with Fritz Kreisler. The only person I can think of who has continued that tradition is Mark O'Connor -- definitely not in the same league as Kreisler either as a composer or a violinist -- but at least he continues the tradition.

February 3, 2007 at 04:50 AM · Roy I could not agree more! Brian, if a great player can write, and if his palying schedule gets in the way, then he/she should lessen the schedule.

Again, all of this will change if one person who can really play steps up to the plate and write the stuff Sarasate wrote. Once that happens the rest will need to follow or be behind this person, way behind. Let's hope this person comes along soon!

February 3, 2007 at 05:13 AM · Raymond, I would imagine it is much easier to say they should lessen their concerts than it is for an established soloist to do so and put their career on the line. Even once a soloist is pretty established the work is still competitive, and cutting back on concerts could do something they might not be able to recover from. It's a business, and since you talk business and economics on here you should understand supply and demand. They have to supply enough to meet the demand, otherwise their demand could very well plummet because of the number of rising soloists that could easily fill their space with an equal or even superior "product".

Much of what Sarasate wrote seems to be either direct transcriptions of pieces written by other composers or transcriptions of various spanish dance melodies that were popular in his time, with some really fast scales and other little tricks added in. So by this suggestion, maybe soloists should start transcribing what's being played in clubs and dance halls and add some variations and fast passages. They could even play the bass drum with their foot at the same time...the new virtuoso technique.

Perlman has made transcriptions, written cadenzas, lived the life of a soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, and conducted quite a bit. Just about the same for Zukerman and some other violinists who now fill substantial time with conducting. They are definitely complete musicians. Neither Bernstein nor John Williams were instrumental performers. That leaves a gap that they filled with composing.

February 3, 2007 at 07:17 AM · I don't think of Kreisler as a "classical" violinist/composer. What he wrote is some of the best parlor music. Parlor music is a sub-genre of classical, or at least is easier to confuse with classical than country music is. O'Connor only falls short of Kreisler if you're using classical as your yardstick, as you know. You don't have to be O'Connor's fan but you do have to give him full credit.

This is interesting, I think maybe classical genre today demands that the performer not be the composer. Something that reinforces that idea is that there are classical violinists today writing lots of non-classical music. Or perhaps that is exactly what Kreisler was doing...

February 3, 2007 at 08:02 AM · Ilya Gringolts wrote some pieces and it's on one of his earlier CDs. I don't have this disc but I'm sure he thinks it's terrible. I believe Rachel Barton Pine also wrote a Sonata, but I could just be crazy.

February 3, 2007 at 09:54 AM · Clearly, any time a piece is performed it's a recreation if not a creation of a piece of art. A composition turns into music and culture and emotional communication in very moment of performing only. It is never the "Tchaikovsky violin concerto" again, it's a new performance using the composer's blueprint every time. And when listing e.g. to Repin, Muti and the NY Phil a few days ago you listen to contemporary art.

Also Shakespare's "King Lear" is not a piece of art. It can, however, become one every single time, good actors and directors perform it. And Shakespeare's greateness lies in giving good actors and directors the base for creating art through performing now and for the years to come. So when watching "King Lear" in your local theater you watch contemporary art.

Therefore there is no need for new blueprints unless these blueprints enable contemporary art for quite some while to come. Either in music or in literature. (Yes, books also become art in the very moment of reading only, reading creates different emotions and thoughts with different readers at different times.)

That raises the question: What is more "art", more human-like, more adventurous, more progressive ... ? Listening to Madonna's same performance a hundred times or to a hundred different soloists with another hundred different conductors and orchestras performing Bruch's violin concerto no.1?

Therefore: a musician is an artist who creates art every single time when performing, independent on who when created the score. And it takes all the genuity, diligence and creative, yes, even genius, to create art from a score.

If a soloist feels he/she is capable and equipped to compose, fine. Time will show, whether these composition can be turned into art. But when creating art through performing takes all the soloist's resources, it's understandable, isn't it?

At the end one could ask why only a few soloists create their own instruments.


February 3, 2007 at 12:17 PM · It'll be interesting when this is done to count the posts that trash non-classical music. Alienation also has its place in the classical genre. Sometimes intentional, and sometimes because other genres aren't as trivial as they're compelled to assume they are:)

February 3, 2007 at 03:55 PM · Brian, the music that Sarasate used for this fit in the classical genre, but if we did this to poplular music today it would not work. You made a logical mistake of thinking that since one person did one thing (using popular music) a long time ago, it would mean doing the same thing today. You did not consider a lot of other factors, and came to a wrong conclusion. Take a logic course.

I think we both know that if Sarasate was here today he would not do this with pop music, etc.... And I can think of a couple of players who took folk tunes and turned them into short, but good, classical pieces: Perlman did it once and so did MIscha Maisky, they both used old Russian folk songs.

I agree with you about the fact that it is not so easy for a player to shorten his schedule. But I do believe that if someone wrote a lot of great stuff for the instrument, and it woudl not have to be concertos, he would be in front of everyone else...way in front.

This would more than makeup for lessening his concert schedule.

Look at Bell's recordings of short romantic pieces: he sold more of them then the rest of the great violinsts put together. The point is the public really is waiting for new violin tunes, and if someone does it well, he/she will be the most celebrated violinist of our time.

Just went to see Perlman a week ago. Afterwards I went to a restaurant with a friend, close to the concert hall. I could not help but noticing that the tables around us were talking about how they enjoyed all the "in the style of" peices that he played (Kreisler).

And I sitll maintain that once one great palyer does this the others will have to follow. It could change the whole thing! Which does mean we stop doing the rep, it does mean we can add to it, as did the other great players before.

February 3, 2007 at 10:43 PM · Some of these violinists/composers are clearly a different case than the violinists of today. Their situations were completely different.

Take Kreisler for example...he wrote his music because he had no other music to perform. He admitted this himself. Bach was out of fashion and you couldn't keep an audience in their seats if you performed an entire sonata. He couldn't play Brahms because Joachim was still concertizing. Same case with other violinist composers who were still alive, and the pieces dedicated to them. He was hard pressed to find a collaborator competant enough to perform Beethoven sonatas. He would have been "laughed off the stage" if he performed a concerto with piano. Also, if he admitted he had written the pieces he was performing, nobody would have gone to see an unknown performer and composer play their own music, no matter how good you may think it is. So if he wanted to make it as a soloist he had to do exactly what he did, and I assume we all know this story.

This is clearly not the case today, and frankly I get the impression that many people on this site feel that anything short of winning competitions to gain fame or a solo career is "gimmickry." I'm not one of these people. I am merely answering the question that was asked, instead of belittling classical music and the accomplishments of the great soloists of the 20th and 21st centuries, a much different era than the 18th and 19th centuries we are comparing them to.

I think it would be great for a new violinist composer to emerge. But violinists after Kreisler seem to have to make the choice of whether to pursue an instrumental career or a compositional one, Sibelius and Elgar being two violinists that come to mind. I hope that some of the violinists who are getting older and cutting back on their performaces (Perlman, Mutter etc...) will be taking more to composition, similar to Ysaye, if their teaching and conducting careers allow it.

February 3, 2007 at 11:53 PM · What I am about to say has already been touched on in this thread. The virtuoso performer in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century I think was expected to be a formidable composer. Take Chopin, Lizst, Paganini, Wieniawski, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff as examples. This quality in most performers seemed to fall out of fashion gradually in the 20th century. Perhaps a plausible reason for this change in trend could have also been due to exterior societal factors like wars and oppression.

February 3, 2007 at 11:53 PM · Hello,

maybe it is not very obvious, but also some of the best of today's violinists are doing such things. The problem is: it is near forbidden by their producers and audience!

Example: Kennedy did his "Hendrix Experience" ( for me one of the best pieces of nowadays violin music) album some years ago and was afterwards very much bashed by most of his classical audience, his "Door's Concerto" did not make so much noise and seems to have gone more unnoticed.

2nd example: Perlman has made a wonderful vinyl disc with Previn long time ago featuring Scott Joplin hits (I'm rather shure that he made the composition of the violin part himself, they are extremely demanding and beautiful), 2 of these have been incorporated into the "Americana" CD of Leila Josefowicz (one of the best violin CD's I've ever heard, a pity it is nearly unknown), also some extremely sweet Haifetz adaptions (showing also Haifetz has done IT) are on this CD and wonderful Gershwin pieces.

Other Violinists who do "their own style" include Gilles Apap (whose muliply varied persiflage of Vivaldi's 4 seasons is in principle an own composition, if you also regard Bach's Gigues as such) and I think also Joshua Bell with his "red violin" stuff (though I do not like it).

OK, Marc o'Connor has produced WRITTEN Capriccios comparable to Paganini's in difficulty (as I heard say, for me Paganini's Capriccios are no music but sports)and by that way is maybe rising his head a bit higher than the others, but Regina Carter for example plays Jazz and other pieces invented herself on her CD's (not so much virtuoso but I like some of them very much, because they are beautiful music).

I think the main problem is the audience and the producers, who do not like any risks and thus prefer a "safe" performance of Bruch's concerto to any experiments.

Maybe also most of the virtuosos of today are in reality colourless technicians - which is demanded and delivered, even Menuhin needed his "unproductive phase" to get as we all know him - such phases are reported as well of Kennedy, Midori and others.

Maybe the real problem is the very short time available for rehearsals today: the virtuoso youngster comes and has only very little time to adapt to the orchestra - so he follows the conductors line. If he does not fit in here he needs more and more intensive costly rehearsals. And the audience demands "worldstars" - even if the overall performance is less good than that of a very well rehearsed local hero.

In principle this is also true for most of the composing violinists of the past: already Paganini's fame made his fans faint... and if I hear Vieuxtemps' Yankee Doodle (on the CD "americana" of Leila Josefowicz) this is also more of a nice and virtuoso joke than music.

So if you want more own compositions of the violin devils of today you will have to subside them more in this direction!

kind regards

February 4, 2007 at 02:45 AM · I'd just like to know how many of the people here saying that these soloists should be composing have actually composed a piece themselves? Have you had it performed?

Composing is a very difficult task, just because you can play the violin doesn't mean that you can compose for it. There's a whole heap of training and practice that go into learning how to compose. In the past, soloists would be taught these things from an early age. They would start learning the violin around age 7, then from age 8 or 9 they would be learning harmony and counterpoint (one of the most important aspects of composition), and they would probably be practicing it from the age of 10 or 11. Imagine how many tiny compositions Fritz Kreisler wrote that we never saw, because they were just little compositions for him to practice the art on.

I have been told that there is a composer in Hollywood who writes a 4 part fugue over his morning coffee. Most of these, he will probably never release, because they are just for practice - by doing it every day, when he is asked to write for a feature-length movie he is able to do it because he has a thorough understanding of harmony and counterpoint and has practiced it every day.

Chuck in the amount of practice that soloists are doing, the amount of travel that they do, and it's understandable to see why today's soloists would prefer not to head into composition - it takes up too much time and you want to have some time to yourself.

What I think we do need, more than Violinist-Composers, is composers who know the violin, who are able to spend their time progressing the repertoire for the violin. We need some more violin concertos that really show off the violin - there is still a lot more that can be done in this genre. We need some more violin sonatas and showpieces, we need some new unaccompanied works to rival Bach and Ysaye. I feel that these works won't come from Violinist-Composers, but from Composers who have learnt the violin to a high level, but have focussed on composition.

February 4, 2007 at 03:36 AM · Hans, the LJ CD you mention is my favorite violin CD of all time. Not because I'm particulary partial to the style of music, though I am, but there are uniquely beautiful suble things in it. If you follow FMF's equation, ragtime is a high art because of what LJ can do with it. Ragtime is similar to what Kreisler was doing. Not particularly stylistically, but in terms of effect and scope. The only thing that comes close to that for me, maybe surpasses it, is ASM's Beethoven sonatas.

February 4, 2007 at 04:40 AM · Wow! Lots of very substantial posts to respond to. Thanks to y’all. I’ll try to address a few of the issues.

The later 20th century was certainly the age of specialization. I’m reminded of the asinine remark made by Thomas Beecham after he saw Casals conduct. Beecham said, “Why can’t people stick with what they do best.”

Well, these days artists seem to be branching out more, with people like Yo Yo Ma leading the way. And Perlman, Zukerman, Rostropovich, Ashkenazy, and others conducting — some better some worse, but it’s all part of a healthy trend IMHO.

Anyway, I didn’t mean for my post to start a discussion of classical vs. non-classical — but since it’s partially heading in that direction, I personally agree with Arthur Fiedler and Duke Ellington who both said in almost the same words, “I only know of two kinds of music — good and bad.” Unfortunately, for the last century or so, there has been an artificial barrier in place between Art vs. Entertainment, or between Classical vs. Everything Else, or between the West European tradition of music written for the concert hall vs. the American tradition of music written for theater, movies and night clubs. I believe this barrier to be an artificial one. It was unknown before the 20th Century, it is unknown in most other cultures, and it is much stronger in the USA than elsewhere in the world.

Well the barrier is coming down. 40 years ago you could be kicked out of any of the major music schools for playing jazz. Today they all have jazz departments. Some schools go even further, offering courses in fiddling, rock and world music.

Mark O’Connor: I regard him as a historic figure because he has done so much to break down the barriers. He has made fiddling respectable in the classical world. He plays his own concertos with major symphony orchestras and records with major classical artists. I only wish I liked his playing better, and his music too. He does not SING on the violin, and he does not write music that sings. Nor does he have drama, pathos, tenderness. Too bad. I still regard him as the next in line after Kreisler. And I suppose he is as good a composer as some of the lesser figures such as Kreutzer or Ernst. What a shame that Stephane Grappelli or Stuff Smith didn’t leave us some written compositions.

A few more observations and opinions:

Lenny Bernstein was a pianist on quite a high level. He performed on and off for most of his life.

John Williams went to Juilliard as a piano major. He studied with Rosina Lhevine (Van Cliburn’s teacher.) Perhaps that explains why some of his piano parts are so beastly difficult.

The music of Fritz Kreisler is squarely within the Western European Classical tradition along with the music of Johann Strauss, Chopin, Liszt, Saint Saens, etc. Kreisler’s music was written for the concert hall and it continues to live there. Violinists the world over perform Kreisler’s music in recitals, alongside of Beethoven, Mozart, etc. A better case could be made that Chopin wrote parlor music. Or that Schubert’s songs were parlor music. However:

We tend to think that music written for the concert hall is somehow on a higher plane than music for Broadway, Movies, nightclubs, etc. This is merely a prejudice on our part and will not stand up to scrutiny. Does anybody really think that Telemann is a better composer than Gershwin? Are the songs of Hugo Wolf really better than the songs of Cole Porter? Would you really rather listen to Zwillich or to John Williams?

Sarasate’s Spanish dances are transcriptions of sorts, but they are masterful. Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy bears comparison with the great operatic paraphrases of Liszt. Great transcription is a high art. The masters from the 20th century were Kreisler and Heifetz. Perlman is clumsy and amateurish in comparison. But Perlman shows the promise of becoming a really wonderful conductor.

Re: the great soloists have no time to compose. There is a handful of top soloists who fill their entire time with practicing and concerts. However, the great majority, including many very great artists who we all admire, play only a few important concerts a year, and have more than enough time to compose, teach, or sit around waiting for the phone to ring.

Well, enough for now. I hope I haven’t offended too many people.


February 4, 2007 at 05:15 AM · Why didn't Bergman, Brando and Olivier write film scores? Why didn't O'Toole and Burton write plays? With all due respect, the premise that you can perform and that therefore you should also write (compose) is moronic. Sorry.

February 4, 2007 at 05:29 AM · Ben--I'm trying to be the next great violinist-composer, I really am. Sadly, I'm beginning to fear I may never write a decent piece (or even finish one, for heaven's sake...)

Much to think about here! Longer reply later. :)

February 4, 2007 at 10:33 AM · I should have said in the style of parlor music :)

Here's a long video of O'Connor on stage you might like -> link I think the way plays, which you mentioned, is his preference. I think of him as belonging to a small group of other top players who sound the same way. Jerry Douglas is the best example of it, to me.

February 4, 2007 at 04:52 PM · Maura, if you have to try, then it is too late. You have to *be*.

Of course semantics aside, you might be the next great composer-performer already, and you merely need a venue and an audience.

February 4, 2007 at 06:27 PM · "If you have to try, it's too late. You have to *be*."

Oh, so everyone's talent just springs fully formed from their brow like Athena from the head of Zeus? Masterpieces simply flow from a Real Composer's pen like a clear mountain stream?

February 4, 2007 at 06:39 PM · Yep. That's why the work is so effervescent.

Serioulsy though, it is not that there isn't work, pain and suffering and all that. What I mean to get across is that you can't try to become something that you aren't. Composition is innate in the sense that one doesn't have to try to make melodies etc. They just bubble out. Making them good is work.

February 5, 2007 at 03:03 AM · None less than the great Brahms agonized over every single note he wrote. Every one, even his melodies that are so perfect you would think they were some spontaneous outburst of Innate Genius. I've heard Chopin was the same way. And have you ever seen one of Beethoven's manuscripts?

Edit: I guess that wasn't entirely your point. :) I would like to know though--how does one discover if one Is or Is Not destined to be a Composer? Are we getting into a sort of Calvinist thing here, where there's the elect and the damned, and there's not a damned thing anyone can do about it? :-)

February 5, 2007 at 03:22 AM · It does sound a little that way Maura. However, just because Bill (or anyone else for that matter) says it, doesn't make it true. Keep composing and ignore anyone who's negative about it.

I'll never for the life of me understand why so many people are so negative in this game. This isn't aimed just at Bill or anyone in particular and falls into the category of a general rant, but things like "you're too old to be professional", " you'll never be a composer" etc, etc; are hardly what I'd call supportive of one's peers or their dreams.


February 5, 2007 at 03:32 AM · When I taught at a small college a few(?) years back, the composition prof was lobbying to have everybody required to study composition for a year. He had no illusions about every student becoming a composer. However he thought that by studying composition and experiencing the process of composing, you would look at music from a compositional standpoint and your musical awareness would be elevated to a higher level.

At the time I pooh-poohed that idea. "Why should I waste my time trying to compose when I could be practicing Brahms and Paganini?!"

Well, my attitude has changed. I still have not actually composed anything, but since I started doing jazz improv I now take part to some extent in the creative process. That experience has helped me to understand and appreciate music (both classical and non-classical) much more fully -- since I now listen and play with a heightened awareness of harmony and of musical structure, as well as a greater empathy and understanding of what the composer was trying to do.

February 5, 2007 at 03:21 AM · I'm not a Calvinist, but Chang was playing the Mendelssohn at 6, and Bell was tapping out rhythms at 2...seems like a lot of it is innate to me. Perhaps some of us do not see that as fair, but I think if we got was is "fair," or "what we deserve," we may not have many of the things that we have now...we should be thankful for the innate composers, players etc. that are largely what they are because of the gifts they were born with.

I would also say this: what would the world be like if we were all great composers, etc.?

I think the reason it is so great to listen to Perlman and the others play, or listen to the Brahms, etc. is that there are a few of them. What would be special about Perlman, if we all played like Perlman? What would be special about Kreisler and Sarasate, if we all had the ability to play and write like they did?

Well, enough with philosophy. I still think that many of the great violinist playing today have it within them to write great stuff for the instrument, but we are stuck listening to different renditions of the same rep, if we asked for more we probably would get more.

And I still say that when one great player starts writing great stuff and recording his own material the others will have to follow and the whole thing will change for the better in a hurry. Lets hope for such a player.

February 5, 2007 at 04:50 AM · Maura I disagree with Bilbo on this. People would be amazed at what the right teaching and environment can produce. Even without that, single-mindedness and dedication combined with experience will get you there. If you don't understand this, things are liable to affect you the way a lighter affects the natives. Everyone who produces good work also produces bad work. Sometimes they're edited out by one means or another.

February 5, 2007 at 04:49 AM · I'm definitely not completely dismissing the importance of at least a certain amount of inborn talent (the old nature/nurture chestnut!), but it can't amount to more than 40-50% of a composer's success, in my opinion. Environment, experience, teaching, hard work, trial and error and a lot of crumpled clunkers tossed into the fire are prerequisites for anyone--yes, even Mozart!

February 5, 2007 at 05:22 AM · Woah, 40-50% of their success is inborn talent? Maybe if you want make transcriptions or simpler music then that is correct. Certainly not the case with the best composers. Bach is considered one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. Enviorment? Seems like it isn't that important if you consider Beethoven's circumstances and childhood. I doubt teaching is too much of a factor as I don't think Mozart himself could teach any more than one in a million how to compose like he did. The rules of counter-point are pretty simple, but choosing how and when to use them and creating good music with them is completely different and has much to do with inborn ability. OK, everyone has clunkers (well maybe not Bach, and what Mozart are you referring to?), but the ratio of clunkers to masterpieces is what counts, since I would say most talented musicians could write a few good works if they devoted their entire life to it. This is where the inborn talent comes in. Hearing (good) music in your head and the having the ability to write it down is not something that most musicians have. If you don't have music and melodies coming to you spontaneously then composing would be quite difficult. If you do and you just have trouble writing them down, then practicing that will obviously help you. Then you just have to hope other people think it is as good as you do.

February 5, 2007 at 05:44 AM · Well OK, maybe my numbers are bogus (I'm not exactly a mathematical genius...) but keep in mind I didn't say zero percent. :) What you mention, about music and melodies coming spontaneously, that's the 50% that's innate and inborn. The other half is just working like mad, refining and experimenting and messing around trying stuff out. Nitty-gritty stuff, unglamorous stuff. (and EVERYONE writes clunkers--the reason we never hear any by Bach and Mozart is that clunkers don't stand the test of time, we remember only their many masterworks!)

In my exceedingly humble opinion it is almost an insult to the great masters to say that their music was composed by inborn genius alone--it necessarily sweeps aside and ignores their incredibly hard work. Genius is silent without hard work.

February 5, 2007 at 05:55 AM · Greetings,

isn`t there something by Edison to the effect `Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percnet perspiration`



February 5, 2007 at 05:57 AM · Yes, that's the general idea I'm trying to get across--I do think it's a bit more than ONE percent inspiration though. :)

February 5, 2007 at 06:10 AM · Environment is also a key factor. Just can’t seem to name any big name genius who was originally a dirt-poor peasant from some isolated area in a third world country. Love to be proved wrong though:)

February 5, 2007 at 06:44 AM · Haven't read the whole of the thread (too tired and have responded to this before in detail). But I did think of one answer to the original question which I had never previously proposed. Namely, that one reason performers no longer compose is that - especially on threads like this one - works by O'Connor are held up as peer to works by Kreisler, that the oeuvre of Puff Daddy and his ilk are held as comparable to Brahms. If you want that sort of relativism then I'm a composer. After all, I hummed a ditty in the shower this morning.

With inanity of that level rife, who WANTS to sit down and produce a polished, original and memorable work when all the crowds seem to want (or be able to distinguish) is minimally organized noise? For that matter, who wants to practice to play well when all one needs is a good plastic surgeon?

February 5, 2007 at 08:27 AM · There are people with a really narrow range of appreciation of things, some of them in very high places. For a long time now I've expected to see it really, and it saddens me. I know real estate tycoons aren't going to know anything about anything but real estate. As far as music goes, I was talking to a candidate for governor who thought classical music was Julio Eglasias Sr. I was talking to a multiple prize-winning classical musician, who's in a different place in the world every week, who thought Robert Johnson was The Partridge Family (very frustrating). Depth has to be tempered with breadth.

February 5, 2007 at 12:41 PM · I believe that the skills are quite different and many would not be intersted in both and not necessarily good at both.

The analogy I would give is like the one in Mitchell's post. I think some people are great composers, the same way some people are great authors or screen writers. Some people are virtuosos, the same way some people are great actors. I believe that writing a composition takes a different type of creativity then interpreting a composition.

February 5, 2007 at 03:00 PM · Emil--well said.

Yixi--I know of a guy who came from a tiny little town, Nagyszentmiklos, in the backwoods of Transylvania. His family wasn't exactly DIRT-poor but they were hardly aristocrats. His name? Béla Bartók. :)

Another one--Brahms may have come from a big city (Hamburg) but his family really was dirt-poor, and poor Brahms had a completely wretched childhood. :(

February 5, 2007 at 03:05 PM · Most violin virtuosos aren't composers because most violin virtuosos spend all of their time practicing. Composers have nothing to do but sit around all day and dream. They're kind of like members of Congress, except that members of Congress don't create works of art.

:) Sandy

February 5, 2007 at 03:33 PM · I checked out the Mark O'Connor video. Thanks, Jim. I liked it better than most of what I've heard from him. Seeing helps. Video beats audio.

However, I still find him limitied musically and violinistically. I want to hear a tone that is filled with nuance, color and imagination. I want it to grab me. Like Grapelli, for example.

February 5, 2007 at 03:38 PM · Last week we went to a concert at Juilliard by Kenji Bunch, a composer who is also a virtuoso violist (and teaches in the viola faculty at the precolllege.) Mark O'Connor was in the audience. I think the virtuoso/composer is alive and well but, as someone stated above, except in small pockets, the listening public isn't particularly attuned to new music.

Lewis-- I am glad to see you took my advice and made a new profile. I also notice you study with Sergiu Schwartz. My daughter is hoping to study with him at a program in Maine this summer.

February 5, 2007 at 04:19 PM · Brian: Kreisler performed all the classical and romantic repertoire, played all Bach solos and chamber works, first performed the Elgar concerto, played all Beethoven sonatas, 3 Brahms sonatas, Franck, Fauré, Saint-Seans sonatas played all concerti of Max Bruch, Symphonie Espagnole by Lalo, Beethoven ,Brahms, Vieuxtemps 4-5,Viotti,Tschaikovski, Paganini and Wieniawski concerti , Mozart concerti, Ravel Tzigane, numerous short pieces and encores, his own compositions, his string quartet, his opera, all his transcriptions and gave about 200 concerts and recitals in the same year!!! And he was a splendid pianist to!!!Played all major chamber works with Casals, Ysaïe and numerous partners, played recitals with the most famous singers of the era including Caruso ( listen to the numerous recordings he made with singers.....big, big career, comparable to a rock star of today...sold millions and millions of recordings before the first world war!!!


February 5, 2007 at 04:17 PM · Maybe a violinist out there should write pieces "in the style of" Kreisler, just like Kreisler wrote "in the style of" Pugnani and others. And then, to cover up the fact that they're really not Kreisler's works, that violinist can explain that s/he was wandering in Europe in some old castles and convents, found some beautiful pieces of music, scribbled the tunes on his/her shirtcuff, and came onto the concert circuit with them. People would be more apt to listen to a "rediscovered" piece of a great composer than a new one, right? The performer would just have to be sneaky - and really good at composition, to boot.

OK, so maybe not too realistic...but if it worked for Kreisler, why not for our generation? ;)

February 5, 2007 at 04:24 PM · Emily, I did, it is called the "Baroque Manuscripts" and in is now in the hands of James Ehnes with several other works for violin and orchestra...


February 5, 2007 at 05:25 PM · Emily--yeah, but no one would get fooled by that one again. Better to think up a more exotic story. :)

February 5, 2007 at 04:43 PM · If all virtuosos were composers, there would be no jobs for people like me! :)

As was stated before, there is an entirely different type of creativity that is necessary to be a composer. There is creativity needed to interpret any great piece of music, but the notes are there, and praciticing notes is not difficult. The notes are there, they don't really change. Also, with interpreting a piece, there are many recordings of almost every great work which one can listen to and gather a sense of the piece from. For a composer, there is no such thing. One cannot walk into a CD store and ask the teller, "I would like a CD of the piece I'm going to write." such would be absurd! There are rules (music theory) but these rules are very broad, and there are so many ways to break the rules correctly.

The other major difficulty that faces many budding composers (including myself) is that of finding publicity and a steady job. A soloist who performs the basic solo repertoire is almost guaranteed a job if they're good enough. To be a new composer is difficult since almost nobody knows what your music sounds like, and most of the time they don't really seem to care.

February 5, 2007 at 07:25 PM · Roy, we all have out limitations. If you jump on the whole world, you'll be outnumbered:) I also don't hear some of the things you'd like to hear, I think. But I think he's doing what he chooses to do. Here are some more fiddlers in quick succession. I'm not a big fan of fiddling in general but am curious about whether you like them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVJuyKKcAg0

My favorite is Aubrey Haynie. He's a studio musician living in Nashville. I liked his playing a lot on a country record I heard and I emailed him and said so. He thanked me and added that studio musicians don't often get the credit they deserve. He said it was worst when it's a hit record and they leave you off the credits. A lot of times country records still don't credit the musicians anyplace.

February 5, 2007 at 07:21 PM · Alex, I agree with you...and it is the reason why nobody composes symphonies anymore.You always have the piece ( usually 10 minutes) of the composer in residence ,usually performed at the beginning of the program, and that is about it...noone promotes composers anymore ( mécènes)...I would give although a special mention to Gidon Kremer who, as a performer, did a lot for modern composers...same with Anne-Sophie Mutter.


February 5, 2007 at 07:50 PM · Thanks Marc, I was unaware Kreisler became a successful soloist and that pianists and other instrumentalists he eventually played with, such as Rachmoninoff, were capable of playing Beethoven sonatas...

I thought it was quite obvious I was speaking about the beginning of his career, before he performed with orchestras (beyond the conservatory level) or collaborated with any known musicians, which is when he wrote a good bulk of his music for the very reasons I stated. I believe I quoted the biography you just read almost word for word, even though I read it a few years ago and don't have it on hand.

After more consideration I seem to agree more with Ben. What we need more than violinist composers are composers who write well for the violin. Since it dropped out of the mainstream, a soloist/composer would be more of a novelty now, and I'm not so sure everyone else would have to follow. As I said before, it seems at least a few, and maybe many, of the contributors on this site think that the only respectable way to become famous or a soloist is by winning competitions, and someone who rises like Kreisler, who may have never become what he was without his own unique repertoire of falsely credited compositions, who rises to fame as a violinist through their compositions would be considered one who uses "gimmickry."

February 5, 2007 at 07:58 PM · Brian, I mean no offense...it is just that many do not know about the outstanding impact of Kreisler who, in our modern world, has been overshadowed by the popularity of Heifetz...Many believe that Kreisler had no repertoire because most of his recordings consists of short pieces for violin and piano...during the 30,s ,when it was possible to record great concerti, Kreisler was on his decline...he played much better during the 20,s and before as stated by Milstein and many others...


February 5, 2007 at 09:01 PM · Just the other day I listened to a program (syndicated) of Karl Haas' "adventures in good music" series that was dedicated to Kreisler. Indeed he was extraordinary. If you ever get to hear that program it is worth a listen.

February 7, 2007 at 06:55 AM · If someone prefers O'Connor to Kreisler, it doesn't detract from Kreisler. Also, it doesn't make a qualitative statement about that someone, since there is no purely objective way you can say one is "better." That is basic stuff.

February 7, 2007 at 07:26 AM · Emil, that's precisely the reason to write good material.

I can assure you that most people in Avery Fischer or Wigmore aren't very interested in Diddy. If you write it, and it's good, people will listen.

February 7, 2007 at 08:53 AM · Right on the money. But what do they want you to write - god I wouldn't want that challenge. Maybe anything that doesn't remind of popular would have an equal chance.

February 7, 2007 at 03:36 PM · Jim,

Maybe that's why the avant-garde seems to actively try to be UNpopular?

I dunno, but if that is what they're doing, it's backfiring. If I have a choice between listening to some bizarre, ultra-atonal piece scored for orchestra, air raid siren, and trio of helicopters, or on the other hand listening to some O'Connor fiddle tunes, I'd pick the fiddle tunes. I can understand classical composers trying to distance themselves from the "vulgar" popular culture, but come ON.

What d'you guys think of using folk music IN classical music?

February 7, 2007 at 03:46 PM · "What d'you guys think of using folk music IN classical music?"

Hasn't that been going on forever and ever?

Of course the essence of the folk is sometimes lost. Or some special details. Nevertheless perhaps it functions, in a postmodern way, as a new route into folk awareness--that is from classical back into folk, rather than the t'other way around as Dvorak etc were thinking.

Really, dogmaticism has no place in music. If you don't like it, well, there's always another day. And creative ideas are often unsettling, or different, or stretch the imagination. So be it!

February 7, 2007 at 04:06 PM · I didn't say it was new, I asked your opinions. Oh darn, is the War of the Romantics (go Weimar!!) really over? :)

But yes, as the late lamented Ligeti often said, there is no place for blind dogmatic ideologies in music.

February 7, 2007 at 07:59 PM · I'd also contend that many virtuosos begin and become such at an early age, that the theory isn't essential. A 5 year old prodigy can rip up solo after solo, but can't yet read, much less read music, theory, etc. The ear development has become paramount, as well as their overall musicality and understanding thereof, and thus has not necessitated the exhaustive (yet powerful) study of theory. I do not mean to down play theory, but it is after all a means to understand an art/music. Music surely existed prior to theory just as the planets existed prior to astronomy. Each science was put into place to greater understand and harness the natural.

So these virtuosos play to their strengths...playing/performance/etc.

Anyway, that's my opinion.


Ross Christopher



February 8, 2007 at 03:43 AM · Soloists definitely aren't weak on their theory. Yes, it's very possible at the age of 5...but in their teens, if even that late, I'm sure they can analyze any piece of music they would ever play and do the same part writing that we all do in college. And they can certainly read music as well as any top orchestra player once they reach a mature age. I always smile when I see the soloist sitting last desk sight reading a Brahm's symphony or some such piece after intermission.

February 8, 2007 at 04:01 PM · (on Theory) I don't assume they can't do/know this - i just think they do more internally, and theory isn't a necessary part of their playing and abilities. Theory aside, they would still be prodigies.


February 8, 2007 at 04:58 PM · My personal take on the question:

There are plenty of violinist/composers. However, due to the legacy of modernism and atonalism in classical music, composers who write atonally are ignored by the public and composers who write tonally are dismissed by the critics as being 'lightweight/populist.' there's a vicious double bind going on in the marketing departments and critic chambers of the classical music industry.

there's no reason to believe virtuoso violinists can't compose to a high level. joachim's hungarian concerto is as good as any concerto of his time and better than that of some of his contemporary composers who didn't specialize in any instrument.

February 10, 2007 at 01:50 PM · On the question of using folk themes in classical music, an interesting approach to presenting this is described in a review in Thursday's Guardian of a concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The piece is a suite called The Fiddlers by a Finnish composer named Einojuhani Rautavaara . It was performed by the Britten Sinfonia led by the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The piece is based on Finnish folk melodies, and what Kuusisto did before performing the suite was play a solo of each of the folk melodies it was based on. Sounds like a really fun way of presenting the material.

To the extent specific sources of a piece (folkloristic or otherwise) can be traced, why not illustrate some of these sources in the concert? Sort of like the museums do in presenting special exhibits. They try to tie things together and give people a narrative to hang their hats on instead of just saying, here are the pieces, you figure them out.

February 10, 2007 at 05:30 PM · Mitchell--that's what I try to do whenever I play Bartok. :) His music is good even when you don't know about the folk background, but when you DO know the whole context, it's just overwhelmingly amazing.

February 10, 2007 at 08:42 PM · Maura, the key word is "context." Hopefully you and the Finnish violinist I mentioned are in the vanguard of this kind of approach.

In the visual arts, it seems to me that the museums at their best do a great job of taking the works of art and presenting them in a way where the viewer goes through a very personal experience of discovery. As I said in the prior post, I really think the musical world could benefit from studying and transforming into a musical setting the techniques of the museums.

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