Rodion Shchedrin Discusses his Compositional Process
The following is excerpted from an interview Bruce Duffie conducted with composer Rodion Shchedrin (composer of the oratorio we are currently preparing, The Sealed Angel), when the latter came to Chicago twenty-eight years ago, in October of 1990, for performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of a new work. The entire interview is available at http://www.kcstudio.com/shchedrin3.html. “[Shchedrin] was a delight to talk with. He shared a big smile, lots of laughter and a few tears. His speech was a mixture of Russian-accented English with a better knowledge of German. Indeed, he dropped German words into his responses on several occasions and freely admitted that he speaks English in a primitive manner, adding, slyly, that his Russian is much better. But when listening to him – with concentration – it is easily possible to understand his thoughts and ideas…. I have left many of his mannerisms, awkward constructions and sentence fragments in the text.” Bruce Duffie.
“Shchedrin: I think music must be clever. 50 percent. And 50 percent must be stupid. But altogether it’s clever. Our poet, Pushkin, said that poetry must be a little stupidity. Then this is really great poetry. But I think because music is some part of mathematic, not only your feeling. All, without any exception, genius work, possible to make mathematic. Without this, this is just impossible. This is just improvisation. This is difference between improvisation and real composer, if you give some mathematic. But if it’s only mathematic, this is not music. This is something very difficult to explain, but I think that music must be clever. I think just with the inspiration, impossible to be real good musical work. And without mathematic, also it’s impossible. I think that Bach music is maybe 75 percent of mathematic and 25 percent of inspiration. I think this [the music of Bach] is highest point of music.
“I think that my score which is the best, that somebody dictate to you. Somebody, I don’t know who, told me this. The few of my works which I like the best, somebody dictate it to me. I just was little machine. Just write this because somebody, I don’t know, inside my head or outside, maybe in the sky, dictate me. Nothing else. But this is happy and lucky moment. Something, somebody, I don’t know, maybe is God, maybe is one of his friends. Something like this.
“In the process of the work, usually you must be satisfied, because in other case you stop it immediately. But after you know something may be wrong, you need clean piece of paper. Always is better like you write of him because the best idea and best realizing [of the] idea, best of all on the clean piece of musical paper. This is ideal. And you know, “Ahhh, this must be fantastic, great, unique”; and then you write, and something uncomfortable “Ahhh, something it’s a little wrong,” so you try a little change in something. This is difficult to explain, like make love – how is possible to explain how you make love? It’s impossible! It’s really some feeling, some … This is emotional thing. Yes, yes. It’s difficult to explain it, yes.
“It’s two things very important for me: first is reaction of orchestra, or if it’s not for orchestra, for chorus. I see and look how they react. If they just snoring and just want sleep it’s not good. But if you see that the eyes is fire and they like it, then is good. And second what is important for me: the reaction of audience. If I feel I took audience in my hand, that nobody cough, that everybody full of attention, then I think I win. And then critics say, “Ohhh, this is not too good, [uses syllables the way an American might say “da-da-da-da-da” or “yadda-yadda-yadda”] du-du-du-du-ze.” For me it’s important, of course, ’cause I am human being! But the two things most important for me is my relationship in rehearsal of the performance, and reaction of the concert hall audience. Because then you decide, this is a live music or this is artificial music – this is just notes on the five-lines score.
I reprint this because I find Shchedrin’s explanations helpful in understanding The Sealed Angel, especially in relation to the music of J.S. Bach, which has been so central to Chicago Chorale's repertoire. That extra 25% of “stupidity/inspiration” he assigns to his compositional style, compared to Bach’s, is important to keep in mind: while he places Bach at the very pinnacle of composition, he places himself much more in the inspired moment. I doubt Bach could have produced anything like even his known output, had he been waiting for dictation, or depending upon blank sheets of paper and the reactions of his performers and audience. And the resulting music, and our experience of it, reflects this difference. Bach’s genius shines from within, and even in spite of, a regular, pre-determined approach to composition (the 50%), and reflects a communal, even bureaucratic, motivation for music-making in the first place: Bach built music the way other people build buildings or roads. This aspect of Bach’s music makes it easier to understand, prepare, and perform. If one learns the rules and techniques, and follows his blueprint carefully, one will have music. Shchedrin cares little for regularity, consistency, “blueprint”: he writes down what he likes, in the moment, and hopes others will like it, too. At one point, a given phrase will end with a whole note; the same phrase will end with a half note on the following page, “just because.” Tempos are likely to change every few bars or so, and to change inconsistently—he indicates tempo according to his feelings at the moment, rather than in relationship to motivic materials.
None of this makes for better or worse; it just makes for different. What a “romantic,” emotional performer might do with Bach, in response to his feelings or the mood of his audience, Shchedrin himself builds into his own music. Sometimes this seems tyrannical– but the results are undoubtedly very beautiful and emotionally evocative.