Composition Competitions – Humor and Perspective

Composition Competitions – Humor and Perspective

Composition Competitions are rough.  There’s no doubt about it.  You’re putting your masterpiece out there, hoping that the judges can actually hear it and understand what you were trying to accomplish.  Sometimes they do understand your piece, and very often, for any number of reasons, they don’t. 

Don’t despair.  Many other composers in history have had less than positive feedback on their greatest pieces.  We all know some of the stories: 

  • He was highly criticized for creating an opera from a play that was considered politically dangerous and had been banned in Vienna –  Mozart and the Marriage of Figaro
  • The professors told him off because his pieces were unusual, and even called one of his pieces bizarre! –  Debussy, when he submitted some of his pieces to the Paris Conservatoire
  • I regret to say that it appeared to be made up of the strange, the ludicrous, the abrupt, the ferocious, and the screechy, with the slightest possible admixture, here and there, of an intelligible melody. As for following the words printed in the program, it was quite out of the question, and what all the noise was about, it was hard to form any idea. The general impression it left on me is that of a concert made up of Indian warwhoops and angry wildcats”  – Newspaper review of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1868

Yikes!  At least so far none of us have been put in jail, as Bach was.


Now to get some perspective on competitions and on judges comments, here is an imaginary glimpse into some composition competitions from past years. The comments are fictitious, but the pieces are some of the masterpieces of our musical heritage, written by some of our most beloved and respected composers!  See if you can guess the name and composer of each piece. 

Have fun …

I.  Comments from French judges on a piece named for a Spanish dance:

Monsieur R, your piece has promise, but really needs some work:

  • Melody – too repetitious – try a contrasting theme or some counterpoint to give it variety
  • Rhythm – ditto – you’ll never get any percussion player to perform this maddening piece
  • Harmony – ditto – try changing keys or something – how long can one progression last?
  • Form – what is the form??   A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A Coda?   Never heard of it.
  • Keep composing!!!!   Maybe you’ll come up with something a bit more interesting.  You should probably stick to French sources, and forget about writing Spanish pieces.  It’s so unpatriotic.

II.  Comments from American judges on a piece that the audience is still waiting to “hear”:

Johnny, what makes you think you are a composer?   This piece doesn’t even have any premise, much less any promise.  In fact, it isn’t even a piece.  Please try again next year – or not.

  • Melody – NONE
  • Rhythm – NONE
  • Harmony – NONE
  • Form – NONE
  • Notation – terrible.  We can’t tell where the beats are and can’t imagine this being “performed”.
  • Saving grace – good name.  It’s always nice to combine numbers with music ideas.  Too bad you only have numbers, and no music ideas.   Perhaps you should just stop “composing”, and find another area of study.

III.  Comments from Russian judges on a piece which was later premiered in Paris in 1913:

Dear Sir-  We regret to inform you that your composition is being returned for you to correct the following errors:  We can’t even begin to judge it until these errors are corrected. 

  • Please check the range of your instruments and don’t write at the extreme limits of a performer’s capability.  This shows an ignorance of the instruments, particular woodwinds.
  • Your rhythms are horrible.  Changing meter every measure indicates you don’t know what you are doing.  No one will ever be able to count this or conduct it.
  • What key are you in?   Is this atonal or tonal or modal or something else altogether?  There is no theme or development – just a bunch of strange ideas thrown together with no rhyme or reason.
  • This piece will never be performed, or if it is, it will no doubt create a riot.
  • Please stop sending these truly strange scores.

and here’s one you might not know …. a sort of Bonus Question

IV.  Comments from Hungarian judges on the first movement of a piece which would later have eleven movements in all.

GL – what were you thinking???  We hardly know what to say.  Good thing BB is not here to hear this.

  • Melody – Puh-leeze.  One note over and over does not constitute a melody
  • Rhythm – Far too pounding and repetitious
  • Harmony – Are you kidding? 
  • Texture – Sure, the piano has different ranges, and yes we know about articulation and pedaling and overtones,  but really, there are not that many ways to play an “A”.  If you must have a piece with only one note, at least give us some different instruments.    You might want to talk with Monsieur R in France about that.
  • Form – No comment.  Please come back when you’ve learned how to use thematic development, harmonic progressions, melodic lines, or any musical concept.  Whew.   After hearing this, we wish we were American and could have judged Johnny’s piece instead.

You see, great composers and great pieces don’t necessarily make it through competitions!!!!

Here are the answers to the tongue-in-cheek quiz above:  Answers to quiz

Keep composing …

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