Inside 20th-century music; Originality vs. Creativity

Orginality vs. creativity When the eminent conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, made a remark some years ago to the effect that, "Well, you know, music stopped with [the last great composer was] Brahms," he voiced something very telling about the musical climate of the Western world. Either by willful choice on the part of people who have shut themselves off to modernism of any kind, or unconsciously with those who know only what they can conveniently get to hear via radio and an occasional concert, this has been the picture held by a vast number of people about the breadth of musical literature.

Of course, a good bit of that cutoff-point attitude has melted away in recent years, as sophistication of many kinds has seeped into broadcasting and concert programming.

But my present subject is another kind of attitude, pertaining to the listener who has already taken the step of getting to a concert hall, of sitting and hearing a new work or perhaps simply an unfamiliar one. It is a subtler attitude, just as common as the first, and perhaps even more obstructive to our growth in appreciating the music of our century.

We got to a concert and hear, say, a symphony of Walter Piston, or maybe the Violin Concerto of Samuel Barber, and come away thinking approvingly to ourselves, "That sounded just like Hindemith to me" (in the case of the Piston piece); or, "There was a definite debt to Rachmaninoff in that Romantic writing" (about the Barber). And with that reaction taking place, a good many fine points and wonderful personality traits of the music of both of those gifted composers go unsavored.

Yet we could say about parts of the music of Brahms (which I love beyond description), "That sounds like Mozart" (as in the finale of the First Symphony) , or "That sounds like Beethoven" (listen to the main theme of that same movement), or even "That sounds like Chopin" (witness the Scherzo, Op. 4, for piano). But quite apart from the fact that everything Brahms captured and learned from came out with his own stamp, we don't apply that rule to Brahms anyway. Nor do we with Beethoven when he sounds like Mozart, or Wagner when he sounds like Schumann, or Chopin when he sounds like . . . Johann Hummel(!). We turn a deaf ear to all that (rightly so), and treat all those composers as though they were completely and commendably originalm (wrongly so).

With what has become a knee-jerk reaction in many of us, we treat the 20 th-century composer, less familiar to us, to a double standard, a barrage of judgment, scrutiny, and comparison which we readily rescind in older, more often heard, music.

We are infatuated with originality, and automatic in making the equation between "greatness" and the degree to which a new musical work sounds like nothing that ever came before. "Absolutely modern," as the French poet Rimbaud wrote.

Originality is a wonderful (and rare) thing. But it ism distinguished from creativity,m which is the quality that really sets a fine work apart. Originality signals us that a composer (like Berlioz in his extroverted "Symphonie Fantastique" or Stravinsky, crashing through conventions of rhythm and dissonance in "Le Sacre du Printemps") is reaching far out on an untried limb, daringly hunting for new ways of combining tones, silences, timbres, etc. But originality may have little to do with a composer's ability to be a convincing prospector in the new terrain he has claimed and staked out. We recognize creativity when we see that, no matter what the composer's materials, tried or untried, he uses them freshly and to a coherent end.

Like rhinestones for diamonds, originality can easily be mistaken for the real item, creativity. The sheer propulsive innovations of someone like Krzysztof Penderecki tend so easily to impress the new-music audience and outshine the deftness and classic sincerity of a composer such as William Schuman, who has been writing virtually the same kind of beautiful, well-crafted music for generations.

This is not to say that the very latest ultra-chic composition for electronic tape, speaking voices, and kitchen pots cannot be written with winning creativity, or that there has not been a fair share of more accessible composers who were dull and uninspired. We simply forget that being always terribly new can be just as equivocal as sounding like a collage of others' musical cism reinforces this kind of lazy fascination with originality, pointing up regularly how this or that new work has its roots in a certain style. Composers in our time are probably no more or less electric than composers of any other time. The insistence upon originality is quite a recent phenomenon: it truly was not a thing that worried the artists of previous epochs.

Now, I believe very much in the natural winnowing process that goes on with new works of art: musical Darwinism, if you will -- the kind of gradual selection that mysteriously, over the long haul, causes one work to survive the rigors of time while fifty of its neighbors are forgotten. But there are forces at work in our 20th-century society which serve too much to interfere with the functioning of this principle. Commercialism and sizing up everything according to mass-market profitability make up one kind of force. Another is bringing to the hearing of new or unfamiliar works the mental climate of judgment, of corralling things into camps of good or bad according to our notions about what is "appropriate" or "original enough."

Those for whom all music ends with Brahms, and those who are after only the Newest, will probably continue to have nothing to do with each other's tastes. But musical creativity, whose fuel operates unspent, demands that we all try to listen more freshly . . . to what's being said.m Then judging becomes less important than listening for what is there, and we can give back to Time and History, the rightful keepers, a lot of our concern with selecting the great works of the future.

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