Over the past four centuries, there has been a marked increase in writings by composers. This has reinforced the ways in which composers use verbal communication in parallel with their artistic practice. While composers from earlier eras explained themselves to differing degrees through prefaces, libels and treatises, the figure of the musician as a critic and man of letters, as embodied by Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann and Wagner, emerged during the 19th century with the advent of the modern media age. This led to a multifarious body of literary work that was often produced alongside musical works, forming complex but extremely interesting relationships with the latter. In the 20th century, composers wrote systematically, producing numerous books, articles, interviews, concert and other notes, as if music – supposedly “the silence of words” as Jankélévitch famously once said – could no longer stand alone, and words had become music’s necessary counterpart.
The reasons composers regularly use different forms of writing are both historical and contextual. They include the increasingly interconnected nature of musical creation and subjectivity since the Renaissance; the desire to reflect on practice, adopt a position on art or intellectualise pieces by linking them to theory; the desire to improve music’s position in the hierarchy of the arts or make it into something approaching a philosophical discipline; attempting to make music speak, give it meaning and guide the ways in which it is heard and received; the need to make a living by writing and contributing to journals; the desire to educate the public; and the growing awareness – especially in the 20th century – that writing can help complete a musical work by revealing its essence.
These motivations give rise to different considerations. Writings by composers, which deal directly with biographical, artistic and aesthetic issues, often touch on the ethical, political, historical (the musician’s place in his/her era and implication in contemporary intellectual debates), sociological (social networks and status in the musician’s time), and media fields (a composer’s construction of his/her career, image and the reception of his/her work).
Given the extremely rich subject matter, this unique body of work has become increasingly significant for musicology. From the late 19th century onwards, anthologies of correspondence and collections of theoretical or critical articles from different magazines and journals began appearing. From the 20th century onwards, academic editions of composers’ writings began to be published in France and abroad. Despite the incomplete nature of the critical editions available, researchers in the musicology field have begun taking advantage of these sources – which are studied as an independent corpus or in relation to the musical works of the composers concerned.
Michel Duchesneau, Valérie Dufour and Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis (ed.), Écrits de compositeurs : une autorité en questions, Paris, Vrin, 2013, 437 p.
Nicolas Donin and Laurent Feneyrou (ed.), Théories de la composition musicale au XXe siècle, Lyon, Symétrie, 2013, 1840 p.
Laurence Brogniez and Valérie Dufour (ed.), Entretiens d’artistes. Poétique et pratiques, Paris, Vrin, 2016, 267 p.
Timothée Picard (ed.), La Critique musicale au XXe siècle, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2020, 1564 p.
Emmanuel Reibel (ed.), Écrits de compositeurs et espaces médiatiques, numéro thématique de la Revue musicale OICRM, vol. 7 n°1 (2020).
Médias 19 - http://www.medias19.org/
Music Criticism Network - https://www.music-criticism.com/
France : Musiques, cultures 1789-1918 - http://www.fmc.ac.uk/