In a wonderful and revealing essay called, “Making a Poem,” the poet Stephen Spender describes two different types of concentration. As he puts it, “one is immediate and complete, the other is plodding and only completed by stages.” He then captures the difference between the two by comparing the ways in which Mozart and Beethoven created their music. Fascinating!
According to Stephen, “Mozart thought out symphonies, quartets, even scenes from operas, entirely in his head” — quite often when he was traveling — and then transcribed them onto paper (see Mozart’s Muses). Beethoven, on the other hand, “wrote fragments of themes in note books which he kept beside him, working on and developing them over years” (see Beethoven’s Notebooks). Often his first ideas seemed so clumsy that scholars were amazed at the results he ultimately produced.
The Mozartian artist is able to “plunge the greatest depths of his own experience by the tremendous effort of a moment,” while the Beethovian artist “must dig deeper and deeper into his consciousness, layer by layer.”
Stephen goes on to say that, while Mozart’s approach may be “more brilliant and dazzling,” the real proof is in the pudding — “the greatness of results.” When it comes to fully developing the original moment of insight, ultimately it doesn’t matter whether it happens in a flash or over a life time.
Stephen puts himself firmly in the Beethoven camp, saying that he suffers from “an excess of ideas and a weak sense of form. For every poem I begin to write, I can think of ten which I do not write down at all.” His method is to write down all his ideas in whatever form they come to him in note books.
Heartening, isn’t it, to know that there are different paths to creating a work of art — and that no one is inherently better than the other? While we writers love to focus on process, in the end, what matters isn’t how we get where we want to go it’s what we create along the way. Write on!