Music revision: why some composers revise their music

Before we dive into this subject, let’s first list the most frequent reasons for music revision:

  • Fixing difficult or impractical sections
  • Perfectionism
  • Evolution as a composer
  • Rewriting for a new setting
  • Aesthetics

The subject of revision is something dear to my heart since I’m a revising composer myself. As already mentioned, there are various reasons a composer may want to revise a piece. But the most common one is probably simple and straightforward – the composer was not happy with the outcome and now wants to fix that by means of revision. This can occur after a performance or whenever the composer is looking back on their music.

The challenging bit about music revision is knowing when it’s enough and what pieces deserve the attention of the composer in the first place. Some pieces might be better off as a historical document, while others embody the embryo of a masterpiece and should be revised to the point of perfection for the greater good of humanity.

This concept of revising music is probably more common in the classical music world as opposed to the pop sphere. I personally think it has to do with pop music typically being finished only when recorded, mixed and mastered. Going back to change a recording and all that studio work is simply not affordable. Meanwhile, the classical composer is usually in a situation where the piece will never be recorded. One of the few exceptions here is the documentary type of recording made during a concert.

Most composers with a big portfolio don’t go back and do changes. It is in the nature of being prolific that you value the constant stream of creativity and it’s a common trait among the greatest composers that have ever lived. But let’s look at a few composers that actually take the time to continuously revise their music, while also being treated as big names in the contemporary music world.

Arvo Pärt (1935-)

The most performed and listened to contemporary composer. A perfectionist who’s constantly revising and rewriting for various settings. Some pieces – like Fratres – are revised decades after their initial completion. At the moment, there are 18 different versions of Fratres for various settings.

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

Mr Boulez considered each piece a living document that will never be finished. I would say that in addition to being a perfectionist, he had more of an aesthetic approach to his music revision sessions. In total, he only produced 14 hours of music that can fit on 14 standard CDs.

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)

He disowned most of his music prior to 1948 and did a lot of revising throughout his life. He continually struggled with the “perfectionism vs being prolific” topic. Still considered a key figure and very influential in 20th century music. What’s left is 7 hours of music, i.e. 7 CDs.

Anders Forslund (1978-)

Yours truly. I’m in the process of revising a good portion of my old music nowadays. Actually, that’s how I came up with the idea for this blog post. The reason for revising my work is that most of those pieces feel rushed and I didn’t pay enough attention to them. Others are simply “products” of my youth. Now that I’m a bit older and more mature, I enjoy revising some of them, but I’m also a bit sad to see I hadn’t given them the attention they deserve. I want to leave a legacy of music in my portfolio that feels complete, rather than a ton of unfinished sketches or pieces that are not up to standard. No one but me can do that to my own music, right?

Music revision is something I hold dear to my heart.

Other types of music revision

Another type of revising, if you will, is the slow composer. You know, the one who’s taking a long time to finish their piece. I think this is, in many ways, similar to the perfectionist who goes back and revises their music. Being a slow composer simply means one does more work on the piece before its first performance. Personally, I feel it’s better to not overwork a piece. Getting it to what I refer to as 1.0 (the first ready version) is more important than anything else. After all, you won’t exactly know how other musicians and your audience will rate the piece until you hear it live. Just get it out there and test it. Then, get back to the drawing board and fix it. The most efficient way to do it, in my opinion.

Great composers with a small output

What follows are a few examples of composers with a rather small portfolio. There are various reasons for their limited output. And yet, this hasn’t stopped people from treating these composers as the greatest in their field of work.

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

You can store all his music on a set of 5 CDs. We’re talking about approximately 6 hours of music. Passed away young.

Edgard Varese (1883-1965)

Had most of his music destroyed in a warehouse fire. All his music fits on 2 CDs.

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

10 hours of music stored on 8 CDs. Another one who passed away too early.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)

This one surprised me! But his whole production equals to not more than 12 hours of music, i.e. 10 CDs.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

About 16 hours of music.

Ultimately, people don’t judge a composer based on the number of pieces he or she has produced. We only care about the music and its impact on us. A piece of music can live forever and has the potential of being an eternal source for the benefit of humanity. Now, that’s what you call great production.

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