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 2000s, I had worked in the theater long enough to have gained considerable experience making revisions. After that I was surprised to discover that if I looked back at one of my earlier orchestral scores, I often found myself spontaneously revising passages in my head—hearing them performed differently in my mind than the way I had originally imagined them.

These differences were often subtle—such as changes of texture, orchestration, or rhythmic detail—but when I imagined the cumulative effect of such changes, the differences in expressive power were sometimes remarkable. Realizing that, I sometimes revised the earlier score match the music I now heard in my more unrestrained imagination.

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