Composer-Performers 作曲家兼演奏家


Looking back over the history of classical music, for me the real heart of the repertoire was written by composer-performers. There are countless examples: Bach and Handel the organists; Haydn the court musician; Paganini, Liszt, Chopin and the other great nineteenth century virtuosi … Into the twentieth century, people like Rachmaninov continued this tradition. But, in the twenty-first century it has become quite rare to hear composers performing their own pieces, except as conductor.

I am drawn to composer-performers because it is where I started myself. I wrote the Serenade for Solo Violin and String Orchestra for me to play with the school orchestra as a teenager. Pupils at my school sometimes performed a movement from a concerto in their senior years. I had already performed the first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major. When my turn came around again I asked if I could play something I had written. The head of music sent my Serenade score to some professional musicians for a second opinion. The response was positive. We performed it in the spring of 1990.

Unfortunately, I only had one other opportunity to be a composer-performer, when I and four student friends gave the first performance of Reflections in 1993 while I was at university. I had to give up playing the violin in 2000 due to repetitive strain injury. By that time, however, my playing had already become rusty through lack of practice. These days, I must leave all performance in the hands of others.

But, my admiration for composer-performers is undimmed. Performers write music that “naturally lies under their fingers”, which helps them develop distinctive compositional voices. Furthermore, virtuosi are pioneers pushing back the boundaries of what is possible on their instrument. Sometimes Paganini’s writing for violin is just wonderfully outrageous. But most of all, I love the idea that composer-performers face their audience on stage throughout a performance of their work. They take all the plaudits, or face the boos. At the end of the day, classical music is entertainment for the listening public – it might be highbrow entertainment, but it is entertainment nonetheless.

However, a lot of contemporary classical music composition these days seems more akin to “esoteric art”, with a mystique built around aloof composers and their elite educational backgrounds, prize-laden careers and critical acclaim. This never resonates with me as much as hearing someone on stage pouring their heart and soul into their own music. There will always be a place for esoteric or experimental music and off-stage composers. But for me, classical music at present has plenty of space for more composer-performers.

I have often wondered why the top classical instrumentalists no longer build their professional lives around their own compositions. I have a few theories.

Perhaps it is because there is such a large repertoire of music in various styles now that the best virtuosi do not need to write their own pieces to showcase their skills. But, this explanation does not convince me. Rock, pop, jazz and other musical genres revolve around their composer-performers – not the bands performing cover versions. Why is it not the same for classical music?

Or, perhaps the reason is not directly related to music. In the past when performers were not so geographically mobile, they gave many more concerts in the same locality. They needed to write new music constantly to satisfy a local audience’s appetite for variety. Now, concert venues can ensure variety simply by flying in different performers from around the world.

Or, perhaps it is the “intellectualization” of classical music and the emergence of the “classical music establishment” in music colleges and university music departments across Europe and beyond from the nineteenth century. Over time the need for composer-performers to please simultaneously the listening public, establishment and critics just became too difficult.

Or, perhaps it is just so hard building a career in the ultracompetitive world of classical music performance that there is no spare time to devote to composition.

Whatever the reason, I have always felt something significant is missing from contemporary classical music without a regular stream of composer-performers playing their own new sonatas, concertos and breathtaking encore pieces. I wish I could still be a composer-performer. Sometimes I listen to the live recording of me playing the Serenade as a 17-year old. If it had flopped, I might have given up writing music there and then. But, the warm response spurred me on. The first performance of Reflections, by contrast, was a more chastening experience. My next attempt at composition would be years later, when I revised (i.e. shortened!) the piano quintet based on what I felt had not worked so well with the audience. Thereafter, I have not been able to be a composer-performer myself, but from the two experiences of it that I had, I learned an important guiding principle: every piece should not only be enjoyable to listen to, but also enjoyable to perform.

8 May 2019.