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Quality Control: Composers Who Revised Their Works

Making a list, checking it twice, and then checking it one more time just to be safe. (Photo credit: Pixabay)

We all know it’s never a good idea to publish the first draft. So this week on the show, the Ether Game Brain Trust is exploring music that went back to the drawing board dozens and dozens of times. It’s a look at revisions and alternations alterations — it’ a show we’re calling “Quality Control.”

Check out our heavily reviled revised playlist below:

  • Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Pictures At An Exhibition – Many works by Mussorgsky were revised and edited. Some of this had to do with audiences not understanding his music, some of this had to do with Mussorgsky’s own work ethic, and some of this had to do with Mussorgsky leaving many unfinished and unedited pieces when he died at age 42. Pictures at an Exhibition is one such piece. It’s based on artwork by Mussorgsky’s artist friend, Viktor Hartmann, who died at an early age of an aneurysm. Shortly after his death, an exhibition of over 400 of his works was organized, which inspired Mussorgsky to compose his tribute to Hartmann. Pictures was one of Mussorgsky’s works considered to be too eccentric for many people. After Mussorgsky’s death, his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set about reworking the piece to make it more palatable for the public. Rimsky-Korsakov, in fact, edited, revised, and even completed many of Mussorgsky’s works after Mussorgsky passed away. It wasn’t until over 50 years later that most of Mussorgsky’s compositions were published without any alterations. Public taste had changed, and Mussorgsky’s style was rediscovered as highly original and expressive.


  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Fidelio – Beethoven constantly reworked his musical themes in sketchbooks, and saved many of his drafts for later use. His only opera, Fidelio, also became very publically mired in revisions. The first performance took place days after Napoleon’s army had invaded and occupied Vienna. Unsurprisingly, nobody seemed to be in the mood for an opera. A year later, a revised version also did not fare well. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat, Beethoven’s opera of imprisonment and liberation was given one more shot, and it was this version that entered the permanent repertoire. This ongoing revision ultimately resulted in four different overtures. The one we just heard, from the 1814 performance, has come to be known as the “Fidelio” overture. The earlier overtures are known by Beethoven’s favored title, Leonore. In actuality, the Theater of Vienna insisted that all of the performances be titled “Fidelio,” to avoid confusion with other popular settings of the same story.


  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), The Firebird – The Firebird was the work that made Igor Stravinsky a star. He wrote it in 1910 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and its invigorating Russian rhythms thrilled Parisian audiences. He made several revisions to the work, but they were mostly made for practical, not artistic reasons. In 1911, Stravinsky turned the original ballet into an orchestral suite, in order to circumvent Diaghilev’s exclusivity agreement for the original ballet. He revised this suite in 1919 for a smaller orchestra, since orchestral numbers had been depleted as a result of World War I. In 1945, Stravinsky made yet another pass at The Firebird, assembling a more complete suite with more of the original material. While his musical tastes had changed in the intervening years, his desire for money had not. The 1945 version was made to re-establish copyright on the original music, allowing him to continue to cash in on his initial success.


  • Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 82 – You may know this symphony from its famous “swan calls” played by the horns in the finale (inspired by Sibelius seeing sixteen swans flying by while writing the work) or from the powerful final blows of the symphony’s conclusion. While the swans were always part of the symphony, those final blows didn’t take shape until after the premiere. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Jean Sibelius found himself in financial dire straits. During this time, he had grand ideas of where he wanted to take the symphony artistically, but couldn’t wait around for those ideas to fully mature. As a result, his fifth symphony premiered in 1915 (on the composer’s 50th birthday) before he was done making the final artistic touches. After this premiere, Sibelius continued to tweak the symphony, and it was finally published in 1919. The final version not only fused the first two movements together into a single whole, but also made the final blows of the finale’s conclusion more pronounced. 


  • Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 – Robert Schumann expected Brahms to continue the mantle of Beethoven and renowned conductor Hans Von Bülow hoped for the same. These daunting expectations may be partly to blame for Brahms’ first symphony appearing relatively late in his career. It was first performed when he was 43 years old, after a decade of gestating on the composition and trying out multiple revisions. True to his expectations, Bülow heralded the first symphony as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” There is at least one clear similarity between Brahms’ first and Beethoven’s fifth symphonies. Both works open with dark and ominous feelings, which, over the course of four movements, lead to a sense of triumph. It would seem that Brahms lived up to expectations as he is now part of the fabled “Three B’s,” the others being Bach, and, of course, Beethoven.


  • Anton Bruckner (1824–1896), Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major – Some composers revise their works, and that can sometimes make it a little difficult to determine the definitive edition of the work. But then you have a composer like Anton Bruckner, who revised his works so often that scholars coined the term “The Bruckner Problem” to describe this difficulty. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, which he nicknamed the “Romantic” symphony, has this very problem. Bruckner first wrote it in 1874 (and that’s the version we just heard). But then about four years later, he heavily revised most of the work, completely replacing the scherzo and finale. A year later, he dropped this new finale, revised the old finale, and the work was premiered. He revised it two more times before it was performed in New York in 1888, and then revised it again (twice) in preparation for its publication. To make the Bruckner Problem even more problematic, both Bruckner’s publishers and conductor Gustav Mahler made further revisions to the work. Talk about quality control!


  • Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986), Requiem, Op. 9 – French composer Maurice Duruflé was a perfectionist. Only a few of his works were deemed “good enough” for publication, and those that were published were either heavily revised, or had their publication delayed by many years. For instance, Duruflé wrote at least four different versions of his Requiem, and spent almost seven years completing the first version. The original commission for this piece came in 1941 from the Vichy France government. They were awarding 10,000 francs to composers for writing a symphonic poem, 20,000 francs for a symphony, and 30,000 francs for an opera. Duruflé intended on setting the Requiem as a symphonic poem. But then the work grew: he incorporated Gregorian chants, added soloists and a choir, and added an organ part. By the end, his work more resembled an opera, so he wanted the 30,000 franc reward instead. But by then it was 1948, World War II was over, and the Vichy France government had already fallen. So he had some trouble earning that original commission.


  • Paul Dukas (1865–1935), Piano Sonata in E-flat Major – France in the late Romantic Era was highly divided on musical taste. Many composers separated themselves into two factions, with Camille Saint-Saens and Cesar Franck leading the conservative school while Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel toed the progressive line. Paul Dukas was one of the few among them who managed to hold the admiration of both groups. He wrote music criticism professionally alongside composing, and because he could write articulately on musical ideology, his artistic voice was generally well respected. He was both a close friend of Debussy’s but dedicated some of his music to Saint-Saens. Above all else, Dukas was a perfectionist, and he destroyed many compositions because he was so self critical. We just heard one of his surviving piano sonatas, but you might be more familiar with his tone poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, whose popularity has eclipsed all his other works.


  • Leonard Cohen (1934–2016), “Hallelujah” – You may have heard this song performed by Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright, and both of those versions are different from this original Leonard Cohen version from 1984. But then again, even Cohen’s subsequent live versions of “Hallelujah” differed from Leonard Cohen’s original! He apparently went nuts trying to write it: sitting in his underwear, banging his head on the floor, and composing over 80 drafts of the song. In 1991, singer John Cale wanted to record a cover version of “Hallelujah,” but he knew that Cohen was still changing the lyrics and adding new verses to his live performances. So Cale reached out to Cohen for the “definitive” lyrics. Cohen sent him fifteen pages worth of verses. John Cale, as a result, picked out only his favorite verses, and those have since become the “canonical” lyrics to “Hallelujah.”

Music Heard On This Episode


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