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, 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

After I began writing librettos and operas, I increasingly approached my work with a dramatist’s frame of mind (as discussed in On Theater.) The more experience I gained working from within a theatrical perspective, the more I wished that I had composed and orchestrated some of my earlier works with more élan—with more vivid exteriorizing of fervor.

By the late 1990s, working in the theater had given me considerable experience making revisions. After that I was surprised to find that if I looked at one of my earlier orchestral scores, I often found myself spontaneously revising passages in my head—mentally hearing them performed differently than the way I had originally imagined them.

These differences might be subtle changes in texture, orchestration, or rhythmic detail. But these differences seemed telling in terms of expression, and sometimes I could not resist revising the earlier score so that the notation matched the music the way I was now hearing it in my more unbridled imagination.

In some cases small revisions triggered others, and a few changes cascaded into an extensive reworking of the entire score. If I eventually found myself approaching this reworking using a new poetic or theatrical concept, then the revisions often included substantial structural changes, and sometimes a new title.