Composers in summer: Use it or lose it

Composers in summer: Use it or lose it


norman lebrecht

June 24, 2020

In the July-August issue of The Critic magazine, I have shared some thoughts on what composers do in their summer break.

Standing on the balcony at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, where Claude Debussy finished off La Mer, it struck me that composers come in two seasons — winter and summer. The winter sloggers chip away come sleet, come shine… Tchaikovsky was a winter symphonist. In summer, he lounged around his dacha or took a cultural tour of Europe. Stravinsky, by contrast, was a summer man, creating the white-nights Firebird in Rimsky-Korsakov’s dacha and posing stark-willy naked for a camera outside his banya, on the river jetty. …Summer composers start with Beethoven…

Read on here.


  • Gustavo says:

    This happened near the place where Mahler once casually leant against his cane.

    Luckily, there are still some mountains left to be composed away.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interesting article. Poor Debussy had not eloped with a ‘wealthy’ Emma to Eastbourne, but with the wife of a wealthy banker, who disowned her in the divorce proceedings. So, to be able to offer her a comparable life style, he had to conduct, made impossible loans, got into heavy debt, etc. The Eastbourne summer created the most fullblooded and spontaneous score of his oeuvre, though.

    Not only Mahler and Brahms let themselves be inspired by the Alps. The entire musical vision of Wagner, completely beyond any scope of any music which had been written before, had taken shape during his Swiss exile in Zurich, where he had sought refuge from arrest in Germany due to his partaking in the Dresden uprising. Isolated, frustrated, without performance opportunities, he made many trips into the mountains and hence the music of the Ring and the scale of all the late operas. All that is now typically related to anything ‘Wagnerian’, is the fruit of the Alps. (Surprisingly, no Swiss or Austrian composer comes to mind with comparable landscape digestion.)

    The current isolation of composers during the coronie will, no doubt, produce quite some isolated and frustrated works. Whether they will be comparable to Mahler’s mountain scapes or Debussy’s sea transmissions, will be debatable.

  • Ben G. says:

    Here’s a thought:

    Let’s imagine if Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, Liszt, (or any other composer of their time), had lived in another part of the world–say the Philippines, Greenland, Bolivia, North Korea, etc.,– you get the idea…

    Would they have composed the same monumental works that we now all admire?

    Central Europe did play an enormous role in their output. If they never existed, maybe we’d be listening to the music of other entirely different composers who would have filled their shoes.

    • John Borstlap says:


      But landscape had that effect only in the period when a certain psychological awareness about it: ‘romanticism’, in poetry, literature, painting. Music being ‘the most romantic art form’ was thus the most vulnerable to landscape influence.

      Also, it was especially the ego of the composer who, as the central receiving focal point of landscape experience, wanted to share his extasies with an artist-adoring audience. While, for instance, in the Far East there’ s enough landscape to inspire big drama, the cultural attitude has always been very different: not the ego of the artist, but his absorbtion within Nature was the subject as can be seen in the Chinese landscape painting and poetry. Only with the combination of Central-European landscape, 19C romanticism and a highly-developed Western musical tradition could such music exist.

      • John Borstlap says:

        A lot goes terribly wrong in the brass in that performance. Also I hear mainly Bavaria in the music and lots of beer and empty bourgeois enthusiasm, it sounds as if written during an Oktoberfest.

  • Gustavo says:

    Potential further reading…

    “Gustav Mahler auf seiner letzten Reise – das ergreifende Porträt des Ausnahmekünstlers. Nach „Das Feld“ und „Ein ganzes Leben“ der neue Roman von Robert Seethaler.

    An Deck eines Schiffes auf dem Weg von New York nach Europa sitzt Gustav Mahler. Er ist berühmt, der größte Musiker der Welt, doch sein Körper schmerzt, hat immer schon geschmerzt. Während ihn der Schiffsjunge sanft, aber resolut umsorgt, denkt er zurück an die letzten Jahre, die Sommer in den Bergen, den Tod seiner Tochter Maria, die er manchmal noch zu sehen meint. An Anna, die andere Tochter, die gerade unten beim Frühstück sitzt, und an Alma, die Liebe seines Lebens, die ihn verrückt macht und die er längst verloren hat. Es ist seine letzte Reise.
    “Der letzte Satz” ist das ergreifende Porträt eines Künstlers als müde gewordener Arbeiter, dem die Vergangenheit in Form glasklarer Momente der Schönheit und des Bedauerns entgegentritt.”