Richard E. McGregor

Published On


Page Range

pp. 255–270


  • English

Print Length

16 pages

12. The Impetus to Compose

Where is Fantasy Bred?

In this article I explore aspects of my search to understand the nature of the impetus to compose. This quest originated from a personal experience of the conflict between preplanned systems and intuition/inspiration: a conflict in my creativity that produced a compositional block. The music of Peter Maxwell Davies seemed to embody this dialectic in that his large-scale works and music theatre pieces appeared to hint that he had found a way to allow both order and intuition to exist within his compositional approach. However, as always, the reality was much more complex, and the composer’s diaries have, latterly, indicated that his struggle with the compositional imperative was intense. James MacMillan and Wolfgang Rihm on the other hand, seemed to exhibit, each in his own way, much less need for preplanned systems, and more reliance on intuition and inspiration, the latter being a somewhat contested term. Whereas Davies utilised many pre-compositional sketches, Rihm’s sketches are sparse and at times non-existent, suggesting much less reliance on pre-planning. Despite a lack of available sketches by MacMillan, what emerged from this study was that some aspect of the ‘spiritual’ underpins all three composers’ work, one manifestation of which is a sense of continuity whereindividual works are often cojoined in a kind of ongoing process where one leads to another, and there is a point in the composition process where the unconscious is ‘allowed’ to become conscious. This, in turn, seems to suggest links with what happens during ‘peak experiences’ in music.


Richard E. McGregor

Professor Emeritus of Music at University of Cumbria

Richard E. McGregor is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Cumbria, and he currently lectures at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He edited Perspectives on Peter Maxwell Davies (2000), and he is the author, with Nicholas Jones, of The Music of Peter Maxwell Davies (2020).