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In this series titled "Composer Dilemmas," I would like to relfect on issues in the process of composition. How deterministic will this piece be, performance-wise? Once 'finished,' does it remain so? How will the scale of the composition, or the forces for which it calls, affect the final experience? These issues, though less discussed in music courses, are much more fundamental than questions such as "should I write a tonal or atonal piece?"


One dilemma I often think about is revision. Certainly in the process of writing a piece, a composer will work through several drafts. However, once the work is premiered, and especially after it (hopefully) enjoys multiple further performances, may it be revised? If revised, does it become a second work - "version B," "version 2.0"?

The amount of revision may influence our answers to this question. Some minor editorial revisions - begin a crescendo one bar earlier, change a passages articulation from marcato to staccato - may deserve only a footnote, since changes as subtle as these occur from performance to performance naturally. Major revisions - reorchestration from large orchestra to chamber orchestra, jettisoning entire sections - seem to call for a new name of some sort.

Or does the revised version supplant the original?

An example from popular culture is the Star Wars films. When George Lucas decided to tinker with his series nearly 20 years after its creation, there was much interest and much criticism. Lucas seems to consider the Special Editions his definitive versions, while many fans cling to the originals, viewing the Special Editions as sacrelige at worst and novelties at best.

An episode of South Park lampooned Lucas's obsession with revising his films, but brought up a very interesting point: once they were released, the original films became part of the public consciousness, and ceased to belong solely to Lucas. The originals remain 'definitive,' even if the creator believes his revisions to be better.

So, imagine if Beethoven were alive this century. Say he wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1940 and it became as wildly popular as it is today. In the 1960s he hears a distorted electric guitar and decides that it is the timbre he was really searching for in the opening of the work. He revises the piece as more of a concerto for guitar and orchestra - all of the notes remain the same, but the guitar takes over some of the parts. Beethoven considers his new version the 'true' version, while the public, used to his original, disagrees. Who is right?

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Ludwig Van Beethoven


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