Friday, September 11, 2009

Insight into a Creative Process

In 2003 I acquired a CD recording of the Symphony No. 3 by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar will be familiar to you as the composer of “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, the “trio” of which is almost universally used for the processional at college and high school graduations. This music was performed at Yale University in 1905 during commencement ceremonies in which Elgar was awarded an honorary degree; its use spread from there to other college and secondary campuses.

What is remarkable about the Third Symphony is that Elgar died in 1934, leaving only some 120 pages of sketches for its four movements. In most cases the sketches are fragmentary, providing few indications of their orchestration or where the fragments were to fit into the flow of the music. However, with the eventual encouragement of Elgar’s heirs, composer Anthony Payne took those sketches, elaborated them and created a complete symphony which was first performed in 1998 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Purists insist the work is an “Elgar/Payne Symphony,” and no doubt had Elgar lived to complete it the opus would have taken a different form. Nevertheless, Payne’s compositional skill and empathy for Elgar’s style and working method render this work eminently satisfying as an expression of Elgar’s own creative genius. It is music of both vigor and lyricism and, in my opinion, greater depth than that of Elgar’s first two symphonies of 1908 and 1911.

Recently, upon replaying my recording of Symphony No. 3, I became newly fascinated with it and subsequently acquired three additional CDs of the work, plus a recording and a book in which Payne explains how he went about realizing the sketches Elgar left. Listening to this music, and poring over the explanatory material, I realized that I was receiving insight into a creative process, one applicable to literature and other arts as well as to music.

Elgar’s method of orchestral composition was distinctive. He did not plan out a work in advance, but jotted down sketches for various segments mostly in “short score,” i.e. a piano score only. Often, it was not until he wrote out the full instrumental score that he arranged the sketches in their final order, developing them into longer sections. In the case of the Third Symphony this task was left for Payne to complete, using not only his knowledge of Elgar’s method and his familiarity with the content of the sketches, but also his own creative intuition by which he tried to put himself into Elgar’s frame of mind.

In short, a creative work has come about in spurts of “inspiration,” if you will, during which fragments emerge — but a final “vision” must emerge in which the goal of the work becomes clear and the fragments fall coherently into place. Elgar had played through most of his symphony in his home with close friends, but never brought it to completion. Terminally ill in late 1933 and early 1934, he either never attained that final coherence or was too weak to bring it to expression. Another was to achieve it — if not Elgar’s vision, one that has an Elgarian “ring” to it. Elgar himself, near the end of his life, had foreseen this possibility.

Reflecting upon all of this, I realized that I have often worked by a similar creative process. With a novel, a fragment of speech, a part of an incident or a scene will come to me, and I will write it down. (In the case of a work of scholarship, the fragments may take the form of some trenchant articulation of a point, or a more developed paragraph of discussion.) But where these pieces fit in the eventual flow of the book may not become apparent until the larger scheme emerges. At that point I may discover that new material needs to be created as a transition between the already-written segments, or to “set the stage” for some critical development in the story that I have already narrated. And I may be surprised by new insights into my characters, and realize that more of their story needs to be told, here and there, to “flesh out” their internal struggles and explain their actions. My wife agrees that some of that “initial sketches — cohering vision — final revision” process occurs in the creation of her poetry.

I don’t claim this insight is unique. Probably many, if not most, writers, composers and other creative artists work by a similar process. Seeing it brought out, though, in the discussion of how Elgar’s Third Symphony came to light has been stimulating and instructive.