Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Originality in Music

In 1784-85 Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart wrote that “Johann Sebastian Bach was a genius of the highest degree; his spirit is so unique and individual, so immense that it will require centuries to really reach him… The original genius of Bach is readily recognizable.” As Christoph Wolff comments in his monograph on Bach, the term ‘original genius’ became fashionable only after Bach’s lifetime. He never sought to be original, but simply pursued the possibilities he saw to the maximum extent. So too did Beethoven not seek originality as an end in itself, but delved to the maximum extent possible into the basic elements of music. Two monumental examples of this are Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, both exhaustive essays in wresting the maximum mileage out of seemingly modest materials. The paradox is that in not seeking originality itself, both composers achieved it.

It was in the Romantic Era that the fascination with originality began. All through the 19th century, every composer sought originality in their own way, which was sometimes a rather superficial way. The trend became worse in the 20th century with many making their name as a member of the avant-garde by coming up with, not so much an original piece of music, as an original language or technique such as atonality, serialism, new systems of tuning, chance operations, new instruments, or entirely new concepts such as electronic music. Sadly, a great deal of this seems designed to demonstrate that originality is not such a great value after all. It would seem that ancient values such as craft, suitability and even beauty are important after all.

What is meant by originality? An original piece of music is one that is different from others, not to be mistaken for another. But this seems to contain already a number of assumptions. For one thing, it is assumed to be well-made, a well-crafted piece. As a kind of additional bonus, it is recognized to be original. This reflects the way composers are educated: one starts by studying good musical models and learning the basic structure that underlies them. One moves on through various historical styles and eventually begins to compose music based on these styles. After one has learned how to craft a piece of music, one begins to strike out onto unfamiliar ground, achieving originality at the end of a long process. Of course, not all courses of study involve this kind of training. A more 'progressive' approach might skip everything but the basic theory and move as quickly as possible to the development of an individual vocabulary. But whichever the case, it is the assumption that composers undergo some exposure to the craft of composition as part of their apprenticeship. The basic foundation being laid, originality is something that may be reached as a consequence of writing the best music you can.
Is originality the most important feature of either of these pieces?

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