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Sidebar -- My Grandfather's Last Tale, December 1996

Letter to a Would-Be Composer (1949)

Ernst Toch to Russell Webber

Dear Mr. Webber:

I have tried my very best -- in all conscientiousness -- to help you. I must go one step farther, even at the risk not to be fully understood by you, whom I do not know personally; though I hope you will understand and believe me if you, too, do your best, follow all my remarks equally conscientiously and without sensitivity and vanity, just as you would trust and submit to the diagnosis of an experienced doctor, even though it may hurt at the moment. There is no other way to real help.

Your case is by no means hopeless; let me anticipate this. On the contrary, you show definitely a certain musical imagination and a natural leaning, even gift; your choice of a musical form which probably is the hardest to master, speaks for the earnestness of your ambition and musical taste. But you lack completely even the most fundamental and primitive bases of knowledge, in every direction. And unavowedly, you betray even your subconscious (or conscious?) awareness of this deplorable status of your knowledge or lack of knowledge. What you really mean to compose is a fugue -- why resort to subterfuges and excuses? But somehow you feel your incompetency; so you call it bashfully, pretending modesty, a "Fugato." In doing so, you try, unconsciously or half consciously, to invite leniency on the part of the expert, your possible critic. You try to cover up your shortcomings before yourself; you try to deceive yourself. Why? I am sorry I have to tell you it is far from being a "fugato" as well -- if we ever should admit such a principal difference other than in size or weight; but a fugue, collapsing in its very fundaments right from its start to the whole of its ill course, does not make a "fugato" either. Complete insufficiency does not enter the meaning of the term. Nor can I help having the same feeling as to your psychic reasons for calling the customary Prelude, bashfully again (and ornately at the same time) "Entrada" (or "Intrada," as you write). The reason for its shortness is no other than the fact that your muse deserted you deplorably prematurely, leaving you in the barren field without knowledge, where to turn or what to do; so you jump incoherently -- incoherence is the paramount feature of your whole composition -- into the motivical, or preparatory, announcement of the fugue theme (good as this is in itself).

Let me make a comparison. You take a piece of cloth (we will skip the question if this piece of cloth, or material, is good in itself; it may be at least workable, anyway) and decide to make a suit of it for yourself. It turns out that the suit is no good. One trouser is as much too long as the other is too short; the same with the sleeves; one of them besides, is sewed in upside down; the lining appears on the outside instead of inside; the pockets are in the back; no two buttons are alike in size or colour etc, etc, etc. What are you going to do, instead of the only reasonable thing, namely, to throw it into the fire and learn first how to tailor? You try to think of the best tailors in the country and mail the miscarriage to one of them, or to some of them, expecting them to remedy the calamity.

I assure you, the only way of "correcting" your composition for me or any composer of my standards would be to recompose the whole thing from the first to the last bar; and, of course, you cannot expect to find any such composer to do that. Speaking of coherence: A composition must grow organically, like a tree; there must be no seams, no gaps, no foreign matter; the sap of the tree must pass through the whole body of it, reach every branch and twig and leaf of it. It must grow, grow, grow instead of being patched, patched, patched, unorganically. Instead of putting pieces of a whole together, as I say, uncoherently, you must let them grow out of one another, join them coherently, overlap their limbs or sections, instead of letting them dangle in the air miserably. I say again, read my book "The Sh. F . . . ," read it very attentively, study it; most of all the section "Form," especially Chapter XL, "The Art of Joining," follow closely all analyses. (I am sure you can get the book in your public library; it appeared last July.) Also in the section "Melody" you will find much you need badly. Your orchestration is just as wanting. It must help to clarify a fugue; by opposing the various sections -- Woodwinds, Brass, Strings; let only one of them play at a time, then proceed joining them gradually and keeping them transparent all the time, being always intent on the plasticity of the piece (for which, to be sure, it first has to be composed accordingly). Your orchestration is most of the time a muddle, just the opposite of plastic. Summarising: What you need is to study, then study hard, to study still harder. Listen to good music as much as you can, copy master scores with open eyes and ears; listen while reading the score.

Believe me, I spent the better part of a week with your score. If I would charge you at the rate of my teaching fee, it would cost you a fortune. As it is, and since, in spite of best will on both sides, I might have caused you some disappointment, maybe even some personal hurt (which I could not help and which, I am sure, will still turn out for the better to you if you take to heart everything I told you and read everything in the score and in the letter carefully), I will not even refer to my first letter and just forget about the balance. I will admit that much is performed nowadays which is not much of a composition either. But this fact cannot change my standards and should not influence yours either, if you take art seriously, as everyone must do who seeks real achievement and accomplishment.

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