The Utility of Familiar Musical Languages

March 8, 2007


Composers find methods that work, and they like to stick with them– sometimes even after a law of diminishing returns sets in. 


On the other hand, music might be thought of as a kind of language.  Why would an author want to learn and begin writing in a new language that would take decades to master when she could continue refining her use of the language she already knows?

Historically speaking, the most profound music seems to have been created when composers deeply matured and refined their styles over a life time – Art of the Fugue, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth, Das Lied von der Erde.


There is also considerable variation in how composers evolve as they age.  Some stick to developing what they have always done.  Bach developed a new fangled concept called “tonality,” his big “breakthrough as a young man,” and continued developing it in largely contrapuntal forms to the end of his life, even while his own children ridiculed his “counterpoint” and called him an old fogey.  Fortunately, he stuck to his ideas, and as a blind old fart, dictated the Art of the Fugue to an apprentice.  Stravinsky, on the other hand, went through five distinct stylistic periods during his life.  He finally turned to serialism, after jeering at Schoenberg for most of his life. 


What would have been the point in telling Nancarrow to stop using those damned old player pianos?  George Crumb had a remarkably unique style, but at some point he seemed to feel he had said what he had to say – or what he could say.  Can we really hold that against him?  I think we have to look at the individual to really understand questions of stylistic evolution.


But one thing we do know: it is vitally important for young composers to rebel, to jeer at elders, to vaguely feel as if they were immortal.


William Osborne