Pursuing Eloquence

Revising has 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 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 extensively revised most of his symphonies.

Such decisions to revise often stem from a persistent pursuit of eloquence. Furthermore, a composer’s concept of “eloquence” may change as he or she gains experience. This happened vividly in my case, and this change of perspective created an impetus for revisions.

More Élan

After I began writing librettos and operas, I increasingly approached my work from a dramatist’s mindset. As my viewpoint shifted, I often wished I had composed and orchestrated some of my earlier works with more élan—with more vivid exteriorizing of fervor. If I looked back at one of these earlier scores, I sometimes caught myself spontaneously revising passages in my head. I found myself recomposing them to be more outwardly intense than the way I had originally written them.

These differences were often subtle—changes in texture, orchestration, rhythmic detail, and so on. Yet when I imagined the cumulative effect of such changes, the difference in expressive intensity felt remarkable. In some cases, I revised the earlier score to match the music I now heard in my more experienced and unbridled imagination. In some cases, a few changes cascaded into an unplanned reimagining of an entire work.