Silence! I’m Composing…

The story is told of the Beethoven fan who had exhausted the usual pursuits of musical enthusiasts—he had all the recordings, publications, pictures, anecdotes, and so forth. At his wit’s end to spend his zealous energy further, he arrived one midnight with spade in hand at Ludwig van’s grave in Vienna. He dug to the casket. Gently prying its lid, beams of light filled the excavation. Peering in, he observed the master rubbing on a manuscript with a large eraser. Beethoven, looking up, implored, “Silence and away, please, I’m decomposing.”

Well, the story/joke is perhaps marred by Beethoven’s deafness—why would he ask for silence? Which takes me to the larger question: Do all composers require silence in order to transfer their musical ideas to staff paper? Do distractions kill their train of thought? I had not asked this question until I recently read a biography of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (Ainola: The Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2015). I was struck by the lengths to which “Sibba” went to insure silence and absence of distractions while composing. So much silence, in fact, that he even eschewed the use of a piano—normally required by composers as they pen their notes. He went from brain to paper directly. Children had to play silent games downstairs. Maintenance workers could make no noise in the course of their work. Often, when total silence was difficult, he would stay up all night with a pot of coffee and sleep til lunch. The children could not even practice their piano or other instruments while papa was penning.

Grieg's Cabin

Edward Grieg’s Cabin, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Bob Ivey

As a personality psychologist, I regard the power of concentration as what we call an “individual difference variable”—some individuals find it easier to concentrate—they get into a kind of trance and blank out the immediate environment, noises and all. Others have more difficulty concentrating, and the television, playful children, hammering carpenters, and passing motorists drive them to distraction as they lose whatever train of thought they may have contemplated. In other words, concentration varies according to the normal curve along a continuum, from those who find it easier to those who find it more difficult to concentrate, and many who are in-between, where it sort of depends on the circumstances.

I asked myself: Do all composers of music require total absence of distraction in a manner similar to Sibelius? Or do some composers pen away in total oblivion with respect to local distractions?  Put another way, is total silence a work attribute requirement for all composers, or do composers vary on their need for distraction-free environments? I haven’t known very many composers in my 75 years, so I turned to two friends who have—Bob Ivey, retired organist, bell-ringer, and conductor, and Andrew Pester, doctoral student in music history at Duke University, whose dissertation focuses on three 20th century French composers.

Bob first replied that

…the only details I know of the type you are requesting pertain to Edvard Grieg.  We have been to his home (Troldhaugen) twice in Bergen, but actually all I know is that he has a separate composing building with many windows (the size of a tool shed or a small play house for a child) that is separate from his home.  It is in a beautiful location on the side of the hill, overlooking the water. [see photo above]

Bob forwarded my question to his musician friend and Curtis Institute graduate Richard Cummins of Roanoke, Virginia. Richard responded:

I guess the most famous composers I ever knew were Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Jean Langlais. We had a 50th birthday party for Sam when I was at Curtis and I had several nice chats with him. He took something out of his hip pocket which looked worn and tattered. Turns out it was a pocket score of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Sam told me he carried it with him whenever he was traveling by train or plane and constantly studied it, always gleaning something new and revealing from it. I don’t know about Sam’s requirements for actually composing but would think a reasonable quiet place would be welcome— however some composers prefer to have a piano handy to try any ideas which may appear in their minds.

Roy Harris was a truck driver in Oklahoma before he became a serious classical composer. I am guessing he also liked quiet when thinking and experimenting with notes, etc. When I knew Roy the longest he was at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They had a new and wonderful recording studio/concert hall there and Roy and his wife would pawn the many kids they had produced off on his composition students while he and his wife, Johanna (a wonderful pianist), would work until the wee hours of the morning in the studio and then sack out until time for morning classes. However, listening to other composers’ music in real time or by recording can also prompt ideas. It’s a very personal thing and I don’t think there is any one vessel any creative person can use to approach actual composing.

I do know that Sibelius, late in the afternoon, would walk down the hill from his home to the local pub and imbibe until he could no longer make it up the hill to home, whereupon Mrs. S. and the two daughters would take an actual wheelbarrow down to collect the great man, and the three would push him home! [Sibelius’ drinking problem was legendary. With such an active mind, he likely drank to fill the void when not composing, much as the fictional Sherlock Holmes used cocaine for stimulation when not on a case—a way to slow down their racing minds. –PJH]

I also knew Jean Langlais who, as you know was blind. I remember playing themes for him on the piano and he would, in turn, play them over on the piano several times and then put a piece of paper in between a small metal grid and, with an instrument, punch holes through the grid into the paper, which captured the phrase or fragment for him.

St. John’s [in Roanoke] choir is doing my Dag Hammarskjöld piece on 2 April at the 10am service and I am conducting. I nearly always worked at the piano because I like to immediately hear the sound of any ideas I get. Some, like Mahler, would compose in a small cottage with no instrument. And then there was Beethoven–ultimately he had to write only what he could hear in his head and, my gosh, what he could hear!

Andrew added:

It’s an interesting question. To be fair, of all the information that I’ve shoved into my mind, I cannot say that I know much of this as a composer’s need for absolute silence. In fact, I know much more of composers who have been productive through extraneous noise and disruptions rather than silence. I know of other requirements: Beethoven liked to compose at the piano; Rachmaninoff preferred a certain brand of piano—Blüthner–as did Stravinsky. But absolute silence seems elusive. I imagine that this would be the most conducive environment for composition, but I don’t know of those who demanded it. I know that composers frequently sought out certain conditions [italics mine], but (somewhat strangely) I don’t know of silence being a frequent or common requirement.

Conclusion: “Sought out certain conditions”—to me, that is the key. Composers’ need for a particular ambience varies with the individual according to their personality traits, the nature of their compositional task, and the habits they’ve learned over a lifetime. In truth, all creative people tend to have their own way of setting the stage for composition:

  • William Faulkner took a jug of rye whiskey up to the hayloft of his barn to get in the mood.
  • Samuel Johnson and W. H. Auden drank tea.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell lay in a casket.
  • Friedrich von Schiller placed rotten apples in his desk drawer.
  • Hart Crane listened to Latin music.
  • Edgar Allan Poe perched his cat on his shoulder.
  • Rudyard Kipling had a fetish for the blackest of India inks.
  • (More at Topic 25.8 in my The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 4th, William Morrow)

Et moi? I burn a big, fat, red, Christmas candle to transport me into my writing frame of mind. To each his own! There is no one right, mandatory, way to be. Silence is nice, but not the only device.

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  1. March 15, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    loved this one. It helps me to have an entire silent house, but the catch is the internet, an abiding distraction.

  2. March 15, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Nice piece Pierce! Caught a lot of ways and means to accomplishing a thing..

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