The following post is an excerpted version of a longer essay about Stella’s experience as a contestant in the 2019 Antonín Dvořák Composition Competition.
By Stella G. Gitelman Willoughby
Imagine this. You’re alone in an attic. Holed up for eight hours a day, for the next five days. The hot sun bakes into your skin through a narrow window. English is not a familiar language. The only objects: a baby grand Steinway Piano and a large envelope with instructions. This was my reality this summer. This was my dream come true.
The attic sits atop a grand and intimidating early 18th century high-ceilinged, chandeliered building: the Prague Conservatoire, the oldest music school in central Europe. I am one of twenty-four winners of Round 1 of the 10th International Antonín Dvořák Composition Competition. In the first round, applications were submitted by composers from 105 countries. Our compositions were anonymously chosen by a panel of judges; we have been selected to compete in the final, Round 2. Traveling from eighteen countries, we unite in Prague, or Praha as it is called in Czech.
Work begins, Monday, July 22 at 9:00 a.m. Each contestant must write two original compositions in five days: One free composition for any instrumentation and in any form, and one variation, passacaglia, canon, or fugue, written for a keyboard instrument. Both of our compositions must be based on a specific theme, given to each of us in sealed envelope as the clock chimes nine. No one has seen this material before, and we cannot remove it from the Conservatoire. In fact, we can’t remove anything. The evening before, our computers (for those of us who use them) and all our other composing materials, are inventoried, labeled, and locked in our individual composing rooms. We won’t remove them until the competition is over.
A crisp “clang, clang” from a hand bell is the last sound I hear every morning and then again after a lunch break, before depositing my phone in a box with everyone else’s, and scurrying off to my attic room. I am eagerly, blissfully sequestered with my own musical thoughts.
* * *
Separated from my haven for a few hours every day for meals and in the evenings, I am surrounded with a community reminiscent of Berklee. Excitement mixed with the drive and dedication of every finalist creates a collective camaraderie. Every day, in a game of international telephone, we share and translate each other’s thoughts and experiences about our progress, the themes, and music. Roman from Poland and Gabriel from Peru have a lengthy and heated conversation on identifying Phrygian modes in early works. Tristan from England flips open his pocket-sized notebook for composing on-the-go. We pass it around to try and make sense of his dots and squiggles—“my newest cello solo,” he gleefully explains. We all press Jan, a finalist from the Czech Republic, about specific details of the judges, their personalities, and their music. He happily shares. One evening, everyone downloads The Free Piano app, and we playfully test each other on our relative pitch. Logan, from New York, imparts his evaluation of Mozart and Beethoven’s houses from his trip to Germany earlier in the month: “Mozart’s house was way nicer. But Beethoven was definitely the better composer,” he opines.
I form a friendship with Alsu, from Russia. Each morning, we greet each other with a hug. Although her English is limited, we converse through Artem, who is also from Russia—I speak to him in English, he translates into Russian, Alsu responds in Russian, and he’ll translate back to me. Alsu and I laugh about our mutual love of music theory, and simultaneously discuss our shared interest in pushing the boundaries of these same rules. Other conversations can be heard in Italian, Mandarin, and Hebrew. We all smile and join in when someone starts to sing. I feel surrounded, warm, happy, and understood in a community of hard working, passionate, and immensely supportive, talented composers.
* * *
Release. Together, Friday afternoon and into the night, we—this newfound community of like-minded friends—pass around headphones linked to tablets and computers sharing the MIDI-recordings of our creations, compositions we birthed from a week of hard work. Each performance is concluded with an eruption of applause and cheers, of awe (and a bit of envy), and lots of observations such as, “Your use of echo between the woodwinds and string section in the second variation was especially riveting!” and “The phrasing and lyricism in the soprano voice is perfectly and dramatically contrasted by the lurking and gradually building baritone.” Our camaraderie deepens as we have now all overcome the same feat; we unite in a true understanding of what we have just accomplished. Now, we share in the celebration.
As we celebrate and congratulate one another on our achievements, I can’t help but reflect on my work during the week. I have learned an enormous amount about myself as a composer—my strengths, and areas in which I am still growing. I am immensely grateful for my mentor and beloved composition teacher, Alla Cohen, and for my entire Berklee education, for each supportive professor, classmate, and administrator who has uniquely contributed to this opportunity and to my growth as a composer. I left my attic room on Friday a more mature and confident composer than when I entered on Monday.
* * *
A packed concert hall: Prime ministers from seven countries, composers from eighteen, spectators pile in. I am seated behind Tristan and between Jan and Francis; we shake hands—laughing at our formality—and congratulate each other once more. Peering over at the four judges, seated in the first row at the other end of the hall, Jan probes us for answers to an unanswerable question: “How can they judge us now? We each have our own unique voice. Each of our compositions is utterly different and remarkable in its own way. They’ve already narrowed it down to the best in the world.”
That Monday, my hands red from applauding as the winners—my new and talented allies and confidants—made their way to the stage. I did not walk away with a prize. Nor did many other very deserving composers. Yet Jan was right. In so many ways, I had already won.
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