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

In my case, writing librettos and composing music for operas transformed my aesthetic worldview, and I began approaching 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 number of my earlier works with more élan—with more vivid exteriorizing of fervor.

Sometimes if I looked back at an earlier score, I found myself spontaneously revising passages in my head, mentally hearing them performed differently than the way I had originally imagined them. The imagined changes always involved greater eloquence and expressivity.

If I did find myself spontaneously imagining changes, and the earlier score interested me enough, then I sometimes decided to rework the score—to rewrite it so that the rhythms, timbres, and pitches were notated the way that I now heard them in my head. In some of these cases, I also reimagined my overall concept of the work—leading to significant changes of tone and structure. And if working with a new concept significantly reshaped a work, then I sometimes retitled the reimagined work to better evoke that concept.

For example, every aspect of the orchestral work Reflections (1983) was reimagined from beginning to end (including the overall concept) in the process of becoming The Night Sea (2013).

When I have made revisions, my goal has always been to better capture the sounds I now heard in my more unbridled imagination.