Pursuing Eloquence

Interviewer: How much revising do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problems there? What was it that had stumped you?”
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
—Paris Review INTERVIEW

Revising is common practice for writers—from poets to essayists and from novelists to playwrights. Revising has also long been a common practice among composers. J. S. Bach made changes as a matter of course when making a new copy of a work. Chopin revised habitually, even marking changes on published versions of his compositions.

Several composers whose music I love reworked some of their compositions over periods lasting years. Berlioz, for example, based his Damnation of Faust on a work he had composed 17 years earlier. Tchaikovsky completed the final version of Romeo and Juliet 20 years after the premiere of the first. Stravinsky made revisions for various reasons, including numerous changes and additions of detail in his orchestrations. Mahler revised most of his symphonies extensively.

Such decisions to revise usually stem from a persistent pursuit of eloquence.

More Élan

After I began writing librettos and operas, I increasingly approached my work with a dramatist’s frame of mind. The more experience I gained working from within a theatrical perspective, the more I wished that I had composed and orchestrated a few of my earlier works with more élan—with more vivid exteriorizing of fervor.

I have occasionally looked back at an earlier score and found myself spontaneously revising passages in my head, mentally hearing them performed differently than the way I had originally imagined them. If that earlier score interested me enough, then I sometimes revised it so that the rhythms, timbres, and pitches matched the way I now heard them in my more unbridled imagination. In a few cases such spontaneous initial revisions sparked a major reworking of the score that incorporated a new poetic concept or dramatic scenario.