The Difficulties and Costs of Writing a Symphony

April 10, 1994|By GORDON C. CYR

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman, have done me the great honor of premiering my second symphony at their concerts Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Unlike my first symphony, which was composed for the American Camerata for New Music -- a smaller orchestra specializing in the performance of difficult contemporary scores -- my second attempt was undertaken with the BSO in mind. This work, then, is designed for a large orchestra of high quality, used to performing a wide range of repertory, and for which efficient use of costly rehearsal time is an absolute given.

Indeed, the harsh economic facts of composing and performing new symphonic music act all too frequently as a disincentive to both writers and players. This is especially so in the United States, where government support for the arts is at once stingy and viewed with suspicion (often visited on the artist himself) by much of the public.

Many patriotic book lovers have long cherished the notion that The Great American Novel has yet to appear, forgetting that "Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Gatsby," and many others already qualified for this designation.

A similar delusion occurs in regard to the Great American Symphony. And although fewer in number, at least in comparison with novels, certain symphonies by Ives, Sessions, Wallingford Riegger and William Schuman (to name only these few) show qualities of "greatness" sufficient to prove the fallacy underlying this idea.

But why should American symphonies, "great" or otherwise, be in such short supply compared with the large number of excellent American novels? The answer lies in the different economics of the the two genres: It is cheaper to write and publish the printed work than it is to write, publish and perform a musical score.

Notice the additional factor of music's part in the equation. If a novel (or poem or play) remains unpublished, there is no lack of literate, educated people who can read the author's manuscript with comprehension. Similarly, a painting may never hang in a gallery, but the artist's finished product may be viewed and appreciated by the lay art lover without a host of intermediaries interpreting the work for him. But a musical score can only be read and "heard in the head" by a trained musician. And rare indeed are those even in this group who can read a complex orchestral score in this fashion. (Salieri's ability to do so with Mozart's music in the film "Amadeus" must have surprised many moviegoers. It was no doubt easier in Mozart's day. Already at the beginning of our century, Gustav Mahler -- certainly one of the greatest conductors of all time -- complained that he could not "hear" the scores of his young colleague, Arnold Schoenberg.)

The necessity of performance in music's realization makes it one of the most expensive of art forms. And unless the composer of symphonies is supported by commissions, foundation grants or (in my own case and in that of most of my fellow composers) a university teaching position, a large share of the composer's cost in writing the work must be borne by the composer. Whether the composer's score is engraved (either very expensive or time-consuming) or handwritten (time-consuming), sufficient copies must be made and bound to send to conductors, and if a work is selected for performance, parts for each instrument must be written by hand or engraved by computer (very expensive either way if done professionally).

I wrote my second symphony, like most of my recent music, in pencil. Fortunately, with the state-of-the-art photo-copying now

available, a copy looks even better than the original. But the work of printing on both sides of a page, lining up facing pages so that staves are aligned horizontally, and binding the pages into book form is best left to a professional printer. And such services do not come cheap.

Even more costly and time-consuming is the extraction of parts for each individual player (or group of players, in the case of the strings, where there is more than one player on a part). Professional copyists charge either by the page or by the hour. Either way, prices for a work such as mine -- with a playing time of about fifteen minutes -- can run to a few thousand dollars. If the piece is commissioned, the composer must often use most or all of his commission money just to pay for this essential.

One of the few grants for copying costs available to American composers is the Margaret Fairbanks Jory Program administered the American Music Center. I am the recipient of such a grant, which pays about a quarter of the copyist's fee. Other individuals who have contributed include Baltimore's great music patron Randolph S. Rothschild, Selma Rosen and Rose B. Isaacs. Rental of performance materials to the orchestra and royalties are also a partial reimbursement.

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