It’s a sensible enough question, and one that every composer is asked – yet none of us has a good answer. My preferred one is ‘I hope St Cecilia might be passing by and help me out’. Unfortunately it is not certain that she ever existed, and she only became the patron saint of musicians because of a misreading of the medieval and probably fictional account of her life and martyrdom, in one scene of which she prays ‘in her heart’ while instruments played (cantantibus organis). This was mistranslated into the saint herself playing an organ. Hence the paintings of her with a small portable organ in hand. Still, musicians should be grateful that we have someone, real or imaginary, in the pantheon of saints who is supposed to watch over us.
Joseph Haydn, as a devout Catholic, believed that his ideas were sent by God, and because he was in the presence of God when he composed, he should dress appropriately in his formal attire and, in particular, always wear his signet ring, or God would turn away. Benjamin Britten, when photographed at his desk composing, always seemed to have a jacket and tie on, giving him (as his biographer Humphrey Carpenter put it) the air of a prep school Latin master, but he dressed like that most of the time anyway so he probably wasn’t doing anything special. Mostly, composers’ working clothes are casual, their workrooms tidy or messy depending on their personality and habits; mine tends towards messy.
It’s easier to explain when we get our ideas. Stravinsky spoke for many of us in saying simply ‘when I’m working’. Forget romantic myths about the Pastoral Symphony being inspired by Beethoven’s walks in the Vienna woods. He did take outdoor walks to give himself a break from long hours working at his desk and yes, he did bring his notebook with him because you never really take time off when you’re composing . . . but the hard work was done in his study. Those notebooks give us valuable insights into the genesis and development of his ideas: the brief jotted-down fragments that became the Eroica Symphony were mostly banal and unpromising – God would send him a bad idea and leave Beethoven to put in the hard work to first turn it into a good one, then extend it to symphonic length.
Music exists in time, but ideas come (if you believe the composer Hindemith’s description), in short blinding flashes, like lightning briefly illuminating a dark landscape. You have to stretch them out, like a ball of chewing gum pulled out to make a long string. That’s where technique comes in. Compositions come in all shapes and sizes, and the experienced composer learns how to design and build them so that they feel right. If you start to fall asleep halfway through listening to a twenty-minute piece, it may be because its design was faulty and it should have been a ten-minute piece.
Let’s not underplay the role of genius, though; some composers seem to come up with wonderful ideas all the time, others never rise above mediocrity – the central enigma of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus – but composition remains a highly technical process, like aircraft design. Some composers have ideas better than their technique (Poulenc was like that), others, like Saint-Saëns, have abundant technique but second-rate ideas . . . sorry, dear reader, if The Carnival of the Animals or the Organ Symphony are favourites of yours. Just my personal reaction.
Do composers get ideas from one another? Yes, all the time, but I prefer to put it a different way: we all stand on each other’s shoulders. Generally composers’ borrowings are not conscious or deliberate – I didn’t realise for years that the second phrase of my teenage Nativity Carol was lifted from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Of course, there were Handel’s borrowings, which were conscious, though he was not stealing in any economic sense in an era when royalties were unknown and copyright in its infancy. He was certainly not short of wonderful ideas of his own, but like film composers of today, he was frequently pushed for time and must have been tempted to raid his colleagues’ lockers.
The central mystery remains. We don’t know where we get our ideas from, unless the answer is ‘from other composers’. We can’t control the flow, all we can hope is that it doesn’t dry up when we have a deadline to meet. St Cecilia, are you there?