On Forgery And Compositional Process

A tactful email from my friend and former student Dorian Bandy gently informed me that the Mozart letter I quoted from my last blog entry—the one in which he describes how he composes—has been considered a forgery by scholars since the mid-19th century! He maintains from verified letters that Mozart struggled in composition much like other composers, even to the point of needing a piano to create. But I don't see an inherent contradiction with the content of the forged letter, which I still feel is a beautiful description of the general process that Mozart might have conveyed to non-musicians, leaving out the nitty-gritty details. In other words, maybe the deeper truth of the composition process lies somewhere between.  Dorian's email led us into an interesting dialogue that I share here:


          I wanted to send a small reply because it seemed to me that you may have been misinformed about this letter that you quote from, and that (especially as a composer yourself) you might like to have a more up to date musicological view. The letter in which Mozart talks about his compositional process is in fact a forgery! We don't know who wrote it, but the it was published in Leipzig's music magazine, the "Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung" on 23 August, 1815 (issue 17:34, cols. 561-66 if you want to look it up)

          Otto Jahn, whose 19th-century biography of Mozart you probably know, was the first to denounce this letter as a forgery, and as far as I know, this view is supported by most, if not all, musicologists and Mozart-biographers.

          Based on other- authenticated- sources, Mozart was a far less "effortless" composer than this letter would have us believe. We know, for example, that he sketched ideas frequently, and that these sketches were frequently abandoned if the material wasn't good enough. The sheer amount of unfinished compositions that he deemed too low quality to complete would suggest that he never actually posessed the internal "quality control" and "composition polisher" that this letter describes. Additionally, if we look at many of his autograph scores, even in fair copies, he did quite a lot of changing, revision, and hesitating- a good example of this is the C minor piano concerto (and there's a Dover edition of the manuscript, which makes it easy to check). 

          There's a fascinating article on this by Robert L Marshall: "Clues to Mozart's Creativity: The Unfinished Compositions," which is in a collection of essays called "The Pleasures and Perils of Genius: Mostly Mozart" edited by Peter Ostwald and Leonard Zegans.

          Finally, I thought I'd point out another set of letters that Mozart did write (copies in his handwriting survive) to his father. One of these letters, written from Paris on 5 April, 1778, describes his frustration that he can't get any composing done in his rented room because there's no keyboard there, and he's powerless to compose without access to a keyboard instrument (!!). So much for sitting in carriages and humming to himself. (I do admit though that it's possible he didn't need the keyboard the whole time- maybe just at the beginning to improvise on and at the end of the process to test out nearly-finished works. In any case, though, he needed a keyboard at some essential point in the process).

          The other letter is from Vienna on 1 August, 1781, during the composition of "Die Entführung aus dem Serail". Here he discusses the musical effects he is employing to draw specific reactions from the audience by manipulating texture, harmonies, specific rhythmic features, and other such musical devices. This is particularly revealing in contrast to the 1815 forgery letter: In that letter he says that he receives these ideas from some unknown place, and in the 1781 letter he is concerned with specific matters of craft and calculation.

           Once again, there's a book about this that collects all of Mozart's (authentic) letters in which he discusses his musical process: (once again by the same author), Robert L Marshall: "Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians and the World" (1991).

           Anyway, I hope you find some of this interesting- as I said, I'm sure that as a composer yourself this topic is particularly close to your own heart!


          Great response! May I post it on my blog? I frequently 'brag' that I'm not a musicologist, so of course I had no idea this letter was a forgery. However, I still believe it contains enormous truth. And as a composer, I don't find what is written in the forged letter to be inconsistent with everything else you wrote! Does that surprise you? I've written pieces away from the piano, though I usually prefer working with the 'sound.' I also know the thrill in a small way of seeing a piece in frozen time—though not in any of the detail that you can! You explained to me in our last meeting how you were able to write your paper on Don Giovanni without referring to the score. I assume Mozart had a similar ability. I do imagine from everything reported about him that he could work out huge amounts of material in his head and later write them down.  That doesn't mean he didn't revise, or that he didn't struggle, or that he didn't make mistakes. But I do gather that he composed with a far more comprehensive vision then, say, Beethoven, who really began with embryos and found himself after so much bloody struggle in a completely different place than he began. I also don't see essential conflict with the statement that ideas come from an unknown place, and the painful details of craft. I think every great composer has both experiences, sometimes with the same piece! Certain ideas seem to come unbidden and we are grateful. But the working out of those ideas can be a struggle. Other times it strangely flows. My favorite part of the forged letter is the pleasure of hearing the piece in his head before it is performed. I think this is one of the most indescribable delights we composers have, so this unknown author must have been a composer or writer himself. 

          So when I read that letter, while I assumed it was authentic, I also felt it was a generalization given to a patron to explain part of his process, not the nitty gritty. 


          I can also see, especially with your more specific thoughts, how the letter you posted isn't inconsistent with the evidence suggested by the other letters I refer to. Of course, I'm not a composer myself, and I trust your description of your own experiences composing (and, on the topic of composers who didn't compose with a piano, late Beethoven is a good example of all the things that a determined, driven genius can do even when unable to "check" his ideas on a keyboard!).

          The only thing I would say, though, is I believe it's a question not of one way of composing or another, but of proportion: The forged letter allows for very little actual nitty-gritty composition work- you don't see the rhetoric happening actively the way you do in the 1781 letter, and you don't see the genius relying on his keyboard the way you do in the 1778 letter. So that's not to say that he never had an idea and never worked it out the way the forged letter describes. In fact, I also trust that he (at least occasionally) must have done this- that would certainly account for the remarkable degree of thematic and emotional unity in the majority of his works. I simply would argue that these flights of fancy were subordinate to, and less frequent than, the everyday intellectual craftsmanship of putting together the extraordinarily well-structured music that he produced.

          This also reminds me very much of a story that involves both Mozart and Bach. In a letter of 28 April, 1784, Mozart recounts that he played for Georg Friedrich Richter, and that Richter was amazed at Mozart's ease while playing: "How hard I work and sweat, and yet win no applause- and yet to you, my friend, it is but child's play!" Mozart replied, "Yes, but I too had to work very hard, so as not to have to work hard any longer." This echoes a comment that Bach made along the same lines. When asked how he was able to pen such perfectly crafted compositions, he simply replied, "I have had to work hard; anybody who works just as hard will come just as far."

          The point of all this is to agree that hard work- at a piano, painstakingly working out details in scores, and either abandoning them or completing them- is one essential aspect of Mozart's creative persona, but at the same time that it does foster an ability to "coast" later on. It may be true that because of his hard work at a keyboard in 1778, by the end of his life 13 years later he had developed his skills to the extent that he no longer required a keyboard. This is, of course, speculation, though. I personally believe in two shades of all this- that on one hand he depended entirely on the keyboard as of 1778- nothing else could account for the severity of his statement that "he could get no composing done since there's no cembalo in the house", but on the other hand some of his raw material may indeed have come from an unknown subconscious place. In any case, as I said, this is where speculation begins, and musicology stops.

           (Also note that as far as I know there's no mention of an inability to compose for lack of a piano after 1778. This could mean that he never found himself without a piano after 1778- quite likely in fact, considering the extent to which pianos were sold all over Vienna and the German speaking world in the following years: Every household had either a fortepiano or a clavichord, and Mozart himself did own a "Reiseklavier"- a clavichord small enough to carry under the arm and which one could use in a carriage or take on a journey. It could also mean, however, that he grew out of that need. Of course, again, we can never know. But we are sure that serious craftsmanship was on his mind for the rest of his life, and that he was always considering how certain passages would influence his audience. That is the only feature that really seems to contradict the "straight from God" version of Mozart's compositional practice- if he really did receive his compositions complete from an unknown source, he wouldn't have considered such "mundane" and "practical" issues as what the audience would appreciate.

Anyway, fascinating stuff, isn't it?


          Fascinating indeed. I completely agree with your point that it is a question of proportion. At least, that is what is true for me. There is creating the global structural vision of a piece that is largely detached from an instrument, then the actual phrasing that for me is created both away and at the instrument, and then the final detailed work that can only be done (for me) with the instrument. As you point out, anyone who plays Mozart is aware of the fine detail that goes into every voicing and irregular accompaniment. That is both craftsmanship and high art simultaneously. You may have a point that Mozart found himself relying less on the piano later on, but I doubt it. The level of care in the later works seems even more an indication of using the piano than the earlier ones! This summer, I tried to "regularize" several passages in the Gran Partita and string quintets. It made me realize just how incredible Mozart's sense of variation can be. It's like one of those fractal pictures that just becomes more complex the larger the magnification! :-)

          Besides Bach and Mozart, Haydn also wrote in his brief autobiography I believe that what he had accomplished had been less from talent and more from hard labor (he said it much better of course). 

          I can see how the forgery gives the impression that Mozart never needed an instrument, but I didn't come away with that conclusion myself. I do think he spent a lot of time thinking about his music and composing in his head. I do for sure--sometimes even in dreams. At the La Jolla Summerfest, artistic director Chao-Liang Lin read a letter from someone who was at a dinner party with Mozart and she mentioned that while he paid complete attention to whatever was said to him, a part of his mind seemed to be somewhere else all the time. I've been lucky to meet genius types like you and others, including a couple of Harvard colleagues, who just seem to operate in multiple planes simultaneously. Mozart was probably that 'kind of guy.' I'm sure he composed many works while away at the piano. However, I also bet that when he played through what he wrote that way, he probably made considerable changes and maybe completely rethought things. 

          Stravinsky is famous for insisting on always using the piano. Schoenberg was famous for rarely using it. I think they both lied! Stravinsky is also famous for sticking music excerpts on his wall so he could see a piece unfold and rearrange it. Schoenberg must have tested things out on the piano at times, though perhaps one secret reason for his 12 tone method was to reduce that need!

           I work the way you surmise—in a kind of dynamic proportion between the two. But actually it's now three! I start with ideas either away from the piano or at it, continue the detailed work mostly at the piano but also away some, and then do my full score and polish on the computer. And the computer input sometimes results in a complete rethinking and revision. Othertimes it's more of a dictation exercise.

          I enjoy this discussion very much and will put it on a blog with a webmail summary. I think people will enjoy commenting. Thanks again for the correction. Now I want to know who forged the letter. He may be as talented as Mozart!