"Someone once asked me, in a public forum, whether I waited for inspiration. My answer was 'Every day!' But that does not, by any means, imply a passive waiting around for the divine afflatus. That is exactly what separates the professional from the dilettante. The professional composer can sit down day after day and turn out some kind of music. On some days it will undoubtedly be better than others; but the primary fact is the ability to compose. Inspiration is often only a byproduct."--Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music, 1939
Understandably, listeners without musical training are mystified by the performers before them, and the music those musicians play mystifies them all the more. Where did it come from? Who wrote it, how long did it take them, and how could someone have been so inspired to set down their ideas in such a way that it would take exactly this amount of time to get through them? And how did they order those ideas? Audiences today probably have even less training and practical exposure to the ins and outs of music-making than they did when Copland wrote that during the Great Depression, so it's likely they will fall back on the easy rationale of "heroic inspiration," and since movies about musicians give them no reason to think otherwise, they probably think it's true. As any composer or performer or singer can tell you, though, it ain't.
I read those words above when I was 18, and happened to pick up Copland's book in the college bookstore attached to Wheaton College, where I was auditioning for the Conservatory. (I was accepted.) The notion that music might not be attached to acting on inspiration, that maybe there was a little bit of toil involved, burrowed deep into my brain and took root. I'd been devoted to playing trumpet, practiced hard, and all that, but here was Aaron Copland (the Aaron Copland!) saying that inspiration was only a tiny kernel of what really mattered in music-making.
The next time I observed the notion of music-making being an everyday occurrence, and therefore subject to life's pressures, was after a concert when I talked to a disappointed orchestra member. The group had played some big Shostakovich symphony with brass all over the place, and one trumpeter was less than pleased with how things had gone. "I cut the grass this afternoon, and thought about taking a nap afterwards, but I didn't. Maybe I would've had more energy if I had," he said.
The percussionist might've had a fight with his wife; a violinist may have had a babysitter cancel at the last minute; a horn-player may have been running late, and had to grab McDonald's on the way to the concert instead of eating the leisurely meal he'd planned; all of these affect the concert we're hearing. But each of those musicians tries to soldier on through the inconveniences, and is operating on professionalism, not inspiration.
It happens to singers, too. A couple of seasons ago when Lyric Opera was mounting a Ring cycle, I interviewed the heldentenor John Treleaven, who was singing Siegfried in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. He's sung the role around the world, and 'fessed up immediately that there were nights he'd rather not sing. "Some nights, you hit a dry patch, and you think, 'Okay, this isn't going to be very comfortable.'" Now, if someone can admit to singing a role like Siegfried under less-than-ideal conditions, a role that punishes and taxes a singer mercilessly, and in the modern era calls for it to be sung repeatedly, you can bet it's something other than misty-eyed inspiration that keeps him going. (The cynical would say that it's money. Let them.)
As the Copland quotation attests, composers operate under a similar set of restrictions and processes. The work has to be written, but the composer also gets a simple, honest thrill out of creating something, almost every day. This is why composers' eyes (sometimes) light up when you ask them about their next piece following a premiere. The latest thing was great, and brought them a certain amount of joy and money and allowed them to express themselves, but they're already somewhere else, dreaming about how to manipulate other pitches and segments into something that another group of people will hear, and maybe even admire a little bit.
The other composer myth that takes some undoing is that a work unfolds precisely in the order we hear it at the premiere. Bartók may have written Concerto for Orchestra in two weeks, and Shostakovich took two weeks to finish his Fifth Symphony, but there was a lot of tinkering that went into them. Bartók even came up with a new ending for the Concerto, and he was ferociously ill as he composed it. Shostakovich needed only two weeks to get the piano score finished for the symphony, but he still needed a little more time to complete the orchestration, and, like Bartók, he was under some unwanted extra-musical pressure, in Shostakovich's case, emanating from the Kremlin. The point is that they applied themselves and didn't pause and ponder as they took the next step. They worked.
This pushing-up-the-sleeves is my favorite part of working in classical music, as a journalist before and now when I'm basically surrounded by an orchestra and its administration. Every day, there's something being built related to the music, slowly, and it comes together gradually. It doesn't come down in one stroke-Wagner, after all, took 15 years between Die Walküre before coming back to the Ring cycle with Siegfried-but it does come together, and watching those pieces slide up next to each other is fascinating. So the next time you're at a concert or an opera or listening to a CD, think about all the tiny steps that led up to that split-second climax. It's a lot.
Above: The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet. H/t to Soho the Dog for suggesting this topic.