Benson on the Openness of Composing

In chapter two of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Bruce Ellis Benson observes that we tend to think that a musical composition is finished when the piece (in its “final” version) is written down. However, there are a number of assumptions that we should question in connection with such a conclusion. For example, why assume that a process of revisions always leads to a better version, much less to the “perfect” version? Beethoven was known for ceaselessly revising and offering a number of variants for musical passages and entire sections. Even if we grant that his revisions generally improved his work, we should not necessarily conclude that they always did so. Beethoven himself often commented that his works contained a number of imperfections that he simply had to let stand given his duties and other commitments. Thus, as Benson points out, there are number of “nonartistic” reasons for compositions reaching a “completion” stage. “[T]he vicissitudes of life have a way of deciding something is finished—whether or not the artist is of the same opinion” (p. 68).

Is there a sense in which a composition becomes “fixed” and definite, or is it the case that even for the composer there is a certain “indefiniteness” and indeterminacy involved in his or her work even when the composition is “finished”? Arguing for the latter, Benson notes that though it is the case that composers have “reasonably” definite intentions, “it would be impossible for their intentions to encompass all of the details of any given piece”(p. 67). In other words, often or perhaps most of the time, the composer himself is unsure exactly how he wants the every aspect and detail of the work to sound until the piece is actually played with a specific group and very particular instrumentation. Mozart, for example, would at times perform different versions of the same work to a group of friends in order to seek their input as to which is preferred. Benson proffers a number of other examples, which I will forego for brevity’s sake.

There is also the additional complication of the performer “rightly” interpreting the composer’s intentions. To illustrate, Benson quotes Edward Cone who comments on the difficulties performers face in playing Chopin’s music, “The performer’s first obligation, then, is to the score—but to what score? The autograph or the first printed edition? The composer’s hasty manuscript or the presumably more careful copy by a trusted amanuensis? The composer’s initial version or his later emendation? [and so on]”[1] (p. 70) To be sure one might give good reasons for choosing and preferring one version over another. But still we must recognize that performers, conductors and arrangers play a role in the process of composing, i.e., composing a work that is already “finished.” Yet, as we stated earlier, composers certainly have some definite intentions, but how extensive those intentions are is another question (as Benson asks, using Husserlian language—are they “vague” or “distinct” intentions?). Composers can and do, for instance, change their minds about certain works over a long period of time. Likewise, composers may not even be aware of a lack of determinacy until the work is performed. Though dealing with verbal content, Benson cites a passage by Hirsch that is applicable to musical content, “Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their determinacy: they are not univocal and precise. This is another way of saying that an ambiguous meaning has a boundary like any other verbal meaning, and that one of the frontiers on this boundary is that between ambiguity and univocality”[2] (p. 74). We tend to associate boundary with precision, so “what does it mean for an ambiguous meaning to have a ‘boundary’”? (p. 74). As Benson points out, boundaries can of course be conceived differently. For example, they can be thought as rigid and inflexible or in a more flexible and bending way. This more flexible conception is the model for which Benson argues in terms of the “boundaries” of a musical work.

[1] Edward T. Cone, “The Pianist as Critic,” in The Practice of Performance Studies in Musical Interpretation, p. 244.
[2] E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, pp. 44-45.