Where Good Ideas Come From

by Rebecca Cochran

I read a neat story about Franz Schubert (1797–1828), the Viennese composer who wrote more than 600 songs, plus much chamber and orchestral music during his way-too-short lifespan. Schubert is one of my personal favorites.

An old-fashioned manual burr-mill coffee grinder.

An old-fashioned manual burr-mill coffee grinder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He was reportedly very disciplined in composing, working diligently every morning, nearly without fail. When a student once asked what his secret was, Schubert replied simply, “When one piece is finished, I begin another.”

One day, however, when his friend the German composer and conductor, Franz Lachner came calling unexpectedly, Schubert was not in the mood for work. He suggested to Lachner, “Let’s have some coffee.” Schubert then hauled out his most prized possession, an old coffee mill. He carefully measured the coffee beans, then took off his glasses and started grinding.

Within moments, Schubert exclaimed, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! You rusty little machine!” He threw the coffee mill into the corner, sending the beans flying. “What have you got?” asked Lachner.

“This coffee mill is a wonderful thing,” explained Schubert excitedly. “Melodies and themes come flying in. You see, it’s the ra-ra-ra, that’s what! You search for days for an idea, and the little machine finds it in a second!” And, he began singing the themes of what would become the String Quartet in D minor, Death and the Maiden, which Lachner faithfully wrote down.

Apparently, even Schubert benefitted from the occasional change in his morning routine. This little story is an excellent example of how some of our best ideas can come from the most unlikely places.

Coffee anyone?

Reference: The Book of Musical Anecdotes, by Norman Lebrecht, published by The Free Press, 1985

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