A Composition Competition and the Quest for Standard Repertoire

Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds?

Written By

Patrick Zimmerli

A few years back I entered a pipe organ composition competition. I have a brother who’s an organist and have written a bit for the instrument, so I’ve seen enough to know that the organ world is a world unto itself, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and ideals. So I was particularly struck by the fact that the competition required an accompanying essay asking the composer to explain how the proposed piece would consist of an “important addition to the repertoire.” I had to wonder whether this question had produced the desired results in the past—or whether, indeed, it would do so in the present, no matter who won the commission!

In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I felt like it got to core issues regarding what music was about. Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds? For those who take as their mentors, our sources of inspiration, and our measures of quality long-dead Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, perhaps the ultimate goal would be to write, like they did, something of value that transcends our era. But can one write a piece with the goal that it become “an important part of the repertoire”?

The overwhelming majority of music that’s being created today is, of course, being made with an entirely different goal in mind—to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public in the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.

On the other side of the continuum, though, is concert music, written for a very small, elite audience, a subset of an already-small classical music listening public. I have a feeling that every composer of concert music harbors a secret desire that their work have a life beyond its original premiere, that it be labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations. And yet most enduring works are very grounded in the specific circumstances of their origins (very few have been born from composition competitions!), and if the phenomenon of 21st-century concert music is going to be regarded at all from the rearview mirror, it too is almost surely to be seen through the lens of the peculiar circumstances from which it came into being.

Be that as it may, there is surely some kind of a continuum between the impulse to write a work that will be effective for a specific occasion and the impulse to write something that will stand the test of time. There probably are composers who only swing for the fences, who write for history exclusively, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I often write for jazz musicians, and in jazz one writes for a specific player or set of players, for their unique personalities or voices. When I perform myself, the music is that much more localized, as I strive for a kind of unique sound in my playing that’s not intended to be replicated. So in that sense the music is not necessarily intended to have a life beyond the musicians for which it is written.

But when I write for a strictly classical instrumentation, I confess that I do somewhat indulge my more grandiose tendencies. After all, if you’re writing for string quartet or orchestra, you’re writing for a medium whose core repertoire is more than a century old. You’re automatically entering into a dialogue with the past, and have enduring works as models. So it’s natural to give some thought as to what it might take for your piece to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs.

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (

That Elusive New Piece of Organ Repertoire

The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite since, despite the tireless efforts of musicians such as Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music—and notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbitt, and Györgi Ligeti—contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire.

It may seem difficult to define precisely what the standard organ repertoire does consist of, but I think a survey of organists would yield a broad consensus around a group of works all of which have existed for at least a hundred years. As varied as the pieces in that group may be, they tend not to avail themselves of any particular extra-musical theme, program, or “concept,” but rather are pieces that succeed as pure music.

What features would a piece that could make its way into the organ repertoire have? Again, perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but one can arrive at some at least preliminary answers, some necessary if not sufficient conditions for a piece to have a chance for lasting success.

For a piece that is at the center of the organ repertoire, in terms of its ubiquity, I cannot think of a better example than the Widor Toccata (originally composed as the finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1879 Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1). The piece may not possess the depth of the organ music of Bach, Brahms, or others, but it has acquired a permanent place in weddings and other services as the quintessential recessional and is frequently heard in concert programs as well.

A series of Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (

Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (

Based on a close look at the Widor, as well as a reflection on many other pieces that are widely performed, I have identified seven necessary conditions for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire.

1. Style and Stylishness. Works in the repertoire traverse a broad swath of styles; a piece apparently doesn’t have to be written in any particular style for membership. On the other hand, inasmuch as style, in the sense of stylishness, is the essence that makes a work stand out, that reaches out and grabs the listener, that commands instant attention, it is of crucial importance. Stylishness bespeaks self-confidence. Canonical works like the Widor, soaked through with neoclassical triumphalism and grandeur, are brimming with stylishness.

2. Substance. As important as stylishness is, a piece has to have substantive ideas, or better, one overriding idea that unites it through multiple transformations—the Schoenbergian grundgestalt—for it to endure. Schoenberg regards the idea, and the working out of the idea, as the highest objective, much more important than style, but I think this is overstated. Nonetheless a unity of thematic, harmonic, and melodic means is essential.

3. Integrity. Pieces that have entered the repertoire tend to have been written with a great seriousness of purpose, a fervent desire.

4. Craft. Exquisite manufacture is essential, from the micro scale of melodic construction and counterpoint to the macro scale of formal structure. There must be a kind of perfection to each event, and a perfect equilibrium in the flow between events. The work needs an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish. This can—indeed must!—include surprises and the unexpected, but the “long line” of the piece cannot abate. In addition, it must wisely deploy the forces at its disposal and be effective for its medium. And finally it should be as idiomatic as possible, intelligently written for the instrument; it should be at least somewhat challenging, but never unreasonably so.

5. Simplicity. At the heart of every canonical work there is a simplicity. Strong, simple, iconic ideas abound. The Widor Toccata, with its repetitive keyboard pattern and very simple scalar chorale melody in the pedals, is the essence of simplicity.

6. Complexity. There must also be an element of intricacy that balances the simplicity and that creates intellectual interest. Simplicity has its limits; there needs to be subtlety and sophistication as well. In the Widor Toccata, the complexity inheres in the surprising modulations and asymmetric phrase structures, the form beautifully molded to create a satisfying sense of a musical journey.

7. Contrast. Also important are contrasting ideas that create a kind of intellectual tension. The Widor Toccata has less contrast than many pieces, but still there is dynamic contrast and certainly plenty of tonal contrast—causing the listener to wait with bated breath for the final return of the F Major.

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (


I’ve outlined seven attributes that are prerequisite for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire. Looking at the issue through the lens of the organ, and the Widor Toccata in particular, gives focus to a topic that’s already potentially too broad to be meaningful. If you look at standard repertoire in classical music generally the variety is unmanageably immense—it’s hard to talk about the attributes of the Widor and, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the same breath. Then again, the very fact that both of these works are still widely performed more than a century after they were written argues that things like scale and instrumentation are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

But, in attempting to dissect elements of works of the standard repertoire, I’ve ignored a factor that is less reducible, yet has perhaps more weight than the rest of these factors combined. It’s the idea of inevitability or need, a difficult-to-articulate but much-discussed sense that a piece must exist.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this—Ananke, a goddess who personified the need, the compulsion that leads to existence. Beethoven, that quintessential manufacturer of standard repertoire, had his own expression: Es muss sein.

Whatever you call it, this sense of inevitability may indeed have to do with forces completely beyond the control of the composer. How does one come to be a composer in the first place? For most of us, the origins that lead to our dedication of a great portion of our lives to an arcane art are shrouded in mystery. We all train, study, and prepare in innumerable ways in the hopes of making a strong, and ultimately a lasting, contribution. But ultimately the confluence of factors that lead to the enduring popularity of a piece like the Widor Toccata—which extend to matters sociological, political, and circumstantial—are beyond any mere mortal’s power to comprehend.