31/07/2012 11:12 BST | Updated 29/09/2012 06:12 BST

BBC Proms 2012: Composition for the Ear, or Eye?

The BBC Proms 2012 season features a total of thirty-three premiere compositions by living composers; nineteen world premieres, of which sixteen of those world premieres are BBC commissions - The BBC Proms has become one of the great platforms supporting contemporary classical music.

Not that I want to belittle the intelligence of the modern composer but I was asked a very interesting question by a colleague and friend the other day: Do some composers of 'modern' music really hear what they write or is what they write just logically coherent to the eye? I'm not a composer and so I cannot answer that question however I feel as though there isn't a clear right answer; sometimes a complex weaving of lines results in clear-speaking music, perhaps, sometimes it reads more sensibly than it sounds - I don't know.

Many anecdotes circulate in musical circles regarding the rehearsals and performances of 'modern' works in which something went wrong, whether by accident or design it is not for me to say.

In one instance, there is a German story of a string quartet in which, at one point, the viola was, for some time, at the wrong pitch because the copyist of the parts had omitted to indicate that the instrument has shifted from the alto clef into the violin clef; supposedly even the composer, who was present, is said to have not noticed that anything was wrong.

I cannot vouch for this tales accuracy, however, in two other cases I can. Whilst assisting one of the most eminent living conductors in rehearsal of a certain new work by an equally eminent living composer problems arose between the conductor and composer when a player questioned an obvious discrepancy between what she was playing and what was set down in the score. The conductor appealed to the composer, who was on the platform, to say which was correct, score or part. The composer, who shall remain nameless, didn't know and tried to brush the question aside. The conductor insisted: "It must be one of the other", he said. "For my part I don't care which it is, but both cannot be right." - The composer went red in the face and merely said "I tell you it's all right. Go on" - And that was that.

Speaking to another conductor who was to conduct a piano concerto by a world-famous composer, in which the latter was to play the solo part. In a private rehearsal with the composer at the piano and the conductor in place, they went through the piece. So little natural musical sense, apparently, did the work make here and there even for its composer that he kept bending over the piano, obviously spelling out the constituent notes of this chord or that, and sometimes hesitating so long over them that the conductor, who happens to be a very forward character, lost his temper and shouted at the composer, "You are just a bluff".

Finally, in the 1926 musical journal of conductor Pierre Monteux he recalls the premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces. "The new Les Noces was to be conducted by Stravinsky himself." Monteux, naturally, attended all the rehearsals, score in hand. "Much to my surprise", he says, "I noticed that all the singers were singing their parts either one-third too high or one-fourth too low, and the composer never corrected them... The night of the performance... 'Les Noces' with Stravinsky conducting received thunderous applause, but the singers were still singing one-third too high and one-fourth too low. The following day I demanded some new rehearsals for 'Les Noces' and the singers had to learn their parts over."

Is it music for the ear, or eye


Well, I have always heard and seen great things from many composers in rehearsals but, as stated previously, some of them aren't as musically capable as one would hope. I'm not sure of compositional processes but I will be sure to ask the rising British composer Emily Howard when I interview her live on the 20th of August ahead of her work 'Calculus of the Nervous System' being performed at the BBC Proms by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons.

The BBC Proms 2012 season continues until the 8th of September.