The striving for ‘originality’ is a strangely 20th century, and now 21st century, self-consciousness. This self-consciousness in the arts has been encouraged by a technological revolution that has enabled artists to hear and see, and by extension therefore to worry about, their place in artistic history like never before, thanks to recorded sound, photography, film, etc.. And the criteria for what constitutes ‘originality’ comes from a false sense of perspective gleaned from a mythological history of music that bears little resemblance to reality, but which is taught at all schools and universities, such an important topic that I am saving it up for a blog all to itself.
In order for ‘originality’ to become a standard with which to measure artistic worth and ‘progress’ (another artistic misnomer which will be the subject of a separate blog!) parameters had to be set for what was and wasn’t ‘original’. To those waking up to the new self-consciousness of the early 20th century, the only possible way to be ‘original’ was to break with the past. The biggest sin of all in culture, it was soon widely regarded, was to ‘rehash’ the things of the past. To this day this remains the key philosophy dictating everything in the creative arts, music criticism and music education.
Now even a cursory glance at this philosophy shows it to be a fallacy. Two of the most original minds in all music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin, both had their hearts and minds rooted firmly in the past, and though through the power of their imaginations they couldn’t help but write something uniquely their own, they saw no contradiction between that and assimilating, learning from, and even emulating what had gone before them. Bach was even openly criticized for having his head stuck in the past, fascinated with a previous generation of contrapuntal composers when his contemporaries where moving in a different direction. And when Chopin appears to be at his most revolutionary closer examination shows he is simply and wisely applying knowledge acquired from a careful study of Bach and others before him.
Then there are composers such as Brahms, or Schubert, who on the surface appear less revolutionary in the sense than Chopin or Bach were, but who is to say their music is any less valid, or less ‘original’, than a more ‘revolutionary’ composer?
The simple answer to being ‘original’ is this: every human being IS original, it’s written into our genetic code. If you are true to yourself, and create something that is an honest reflection of your own feelings, it WILL be original, regardless of its superficial ‘style’ ‘idiom’ or ‘form’, and regardless of what age you live in. Whether it’s any good or not is another matter, and usually time has a very good way of sorting out the good from the not so good. But self-consciously trying to be original has been the death knell of creativity in the 20th century. It has introduced a whole new level of negative self-awareness that has had the effect of stifling true expression. It has given rise to a manic desire by artists to shock (as if that was something ‘original’! - as Chopin once said: “You can be struck dumb with astonishment at unexpected news equally whether it is shouted out loud or barely whispered in your ear”) and has provided all manor of excuses for what, by every other criteria, would simply be described as rubbish (to not beat about the bush!). For examples of rubbish in the name of art please wait for a future blog! Of course taking the word literally, being ‘original’ is not a difficult task at all, providing you have no care over the quality of what you create. This kind of originality can be achieved with the greatest of ease and the least ability (as has been proved frequently in the last century).
As for the parameters widely used in music institutions in the last half century or more to define ‘originality’ in music, they are based largely on the theories of one man, to such an extent that this person could easily be described as one of the most influential figures in 20th century classical music: Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was a composer of intense and dramatic romantic music at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, who later became famous for his open rebellion against traditional tonality in music (though he himself was convinced he was "a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition"). In the 1930s he emigrated from Europe to the United States and actually became a good friend (and admirer ironically enough – as will be explained in a future blog!) of George Gershwin. His eulogy to Gershwin following the latter's early death is moving, heartfelt and generous. Gershwin had shown his typical broad-mindedness and generosity by helping to sponsor the first recordings of Schoenberg's string quartets just a few months before his own death. But unlike Gershwin, Schoenberg had felt he had reached a dead end in creativity that was forcing him to rethink his whole approach to music. Like Picasso, who represented a similar - though not as ‘revolutionary’ – approach in art, Schoenberg felt restricted by what he saw as conventional methods of musical construction. In searching for a way out of these strictures (which oddly enough other composers with greater imaginations did not feel were strictures) and to avoid simply ‘rehashing’ music that had already been written by previous generations of composers, he began to theorise a compositional method that opposed the basic laws of nature and sound (though he had no scientific background on which to base his radical ideas) and as a consequence developed a whole new set of rules dictating how music could be written.
[One of Gershwin’s 1937 home movies, featuring Arnold and Gertrud Schoenberg, Gertrud’s brother Rudi Kolisch (of the Kolisch string quartet), Doris Vidor, and a few brief glimpses of Gershwin himself. The musical extract accompanying the video is the beginning of Schoenberg’s String Quartet no.4 Op.37, written in 1936, in a 1937 recording by the Kolisch Quartet that was sponsored by George Gershwin. Also included in the short video is a still of Gershwin at work on his famous oil painting portrait of Schoenberg, and a very moving eulogy uttered by Schoenberg the day after Gershwin’s untimely death in July 1937.]
In reality Schoenberg, like Picasso and many others, was taking the intellectually easy way out of a constant problem for all artists: using and developing the imagination. The struggle to create is far from easy and usually comes with intense self-doubt and self-criticism; even after a lifetime of trying many talented and gifted artists may not be happy to discover they had nothing interesting to say after all! Perhaps not surprisingly then, Schoenberg avoided the struggle altogether by simply developing a new set of rules, to replace the old ones (a bit like solving the problems of tsarist Russia by replacing it with communist Russia). But the thing with great art is you can’t manufacture it on a production line, no matter how good the rules are. Being the world’s greatest expert at writing a piece of music in sonata form may be no match for the humble jottings of a novice who has a greater imagination! Johann Sebastian Bach’s most technically accomplished fugues may not be his best (and in any case, Bach was a great one for breaking the so-called ‘rules’ of music). But Schoenberg felt he had found a way out of his writer's block, and even told his friends, once he had arrived at his new method, that he was composing with the enthusiastic excitement again of a young composer. Of course in the literal sense of the word Schoenberg’s work after his ‘road to Damascus’ conversion was ‘original’ but there was nothing natural about this self-conscious cerebral approach, which is why it ultimately failed. Sadly, and this is the much more important issue, the repercussions of his experiment changed the face of ‘classical’ music for decades and are still felt in music to this day. Arnold Schoenberg's work and theories, which after all even Gershwin had shown a curious interest in, were not as damaging as the huge machinery that went into place after him to try to turn what he had started into the 'norm' in new classical music.
For those unfamiliar with Schoenberg and his work, I’ll just summarize what he’s most famous for: basically he decided the traditional key structure and tonality of music, and the way harmonies related to one another, could be jettisoned (the composer Liszt had experimented a little with this idea a few decades earlier but went on to conclude that anyone who came up with music without any tonality would be a “crazed idiot”). While the system of 12 major and 12 minor keys in western classical music was fairly new (by which I mean had been around for a mere few hundred years) the idea of a tonal centre to music (a kind of hierarchy where some notes, and usually one in particular, are more important than others) had been around for much longer, certainly as far back as 200BCE when we have some of the earliest evidence of musical notation, and presumably even earlier, right back perhaps to the moment the first musical sounds could be created. This is not surprising since the way tones relate to one another is a matter of pure physics and the make-up of sound waves that no cerebral, if well meaning, professor from Vienna/California can change.
[The Seikilos epitaph, recreated on this video, is the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. Both words and musical notation were found carved on a tombstone not far from Ephesus in Turkey, dated anywhere between 200 BCE and 100 CE]
But Schoenberg was convinced that eventually a 'musical evolution' would occur (again with no scientific basis to back up his argument) in which there would no longer be a discernible difference between consonant and dissonant sounds (see below for my description of dissonance in music). A hundred years later we are still waiting for Schoenberg's predicted 'musical evolution'! Strangely enough, Schoenberg’s rebellion with the past didn’t extend to abolishing the 12 notes of the western chromatic scale (later 'Schoenberg disciples' saw to that). Instead he seems to have cherry picked which aspects of the past he would keep and which he would jettison. It wasn’t long before Schoenberg’s ‘atonal’ approach, as it became known, was seen by the music establishment elite as a 'serious’ development in music, and it was eventually adopted with a real a passion by figures in the music establishment around the world once the old guard of 19th century professors had eventually died off! It seemed the perfect foil to the ‘easy listening’ of the now fast growing pop industry of the 20th century.
It is hard to over-emphasize the dominance the Schoenberg approach has had over classical composers in the 20th century. Although still referred to today as ‘avant-garde’ in truth the Schoenberg ‘atonal’ approach has been enthusiastically embraced by music establishments (universities, BBC, major orchestras, etc.) for many decades and thus, far from being a “pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo” (wikipedia definition of avant-garde) the Schoenbergian approach has actually been the status quo for several generations! Even those not supporting it out-right would half adopt some if it’s theories. And woe betide any young creative mind wanting to avoid this path. To give an example of the peer pressure exhorted on musicians the pianist Alfred Brendel recently went so far as to suggest that after Schoenberg Ravel’s music could only be seen as kitsch. Presumably Brendel would have applied this expression to any number of post-Schoenbergian works not taking into account Schoenbergian ideals, such as works by Elgar, Fauré, Gershwin, etc.. Interestingly, I haven’t heard Brendel describing Mozart’s music as sounding kitsch after the revolution in harmony that came before him from Johann Sebastian Bach, even though an equally ‘valid’ parallel intellectual argument (using Brendel’s ludicrous criteria) could be made in that case.
Brendel’s comments are very much in step with Stalin’s approach to the arts, though I doubt that Alfred Brendel would see it that way! But in the same manner that Stalin forced his narrow cultural ideas on the artists around him, in the west a similar psychological battle was taking place, but in exactly the opposite direction. Powerful establishments such as the BBC literally dictated musical style policy, exactly as Stalin had done in the Soviet Union. To reject these ideals was to be seen as ‘backward’ ‘lacking in intellectual rigour/imagination’ etc etc.. Composers and artists that failed to meet these mostly (but not exclusively) Schoenbergian stylistic requirements fell by the wayside (I have direct experience of the BBC’s ‘listening panel’ that chose works suitable for broadcast back in the early 1980s - any work failing the panel’s criteria was banned from broadcast by the network). Even composers as highly regarded, successful and established (but more tonal) as William Walton and Samuel Barber felt the pressure, and tried (in both cases, and with equally disastrous results) to change their own compositional style. A new composer, even if he didn’t adopt Schoenbergian ideals, could only be considered ‘bona fide’ if a certain proportion of ‘dissonance’ was present in his work.
Since not all readers of this blog will be familiar with musical terminology a brief description of dissonance, and its importance in music, is needed here. To put it crudely dissonance is the sound of two or more simultaneously struck notes that don’t ordinarily appear to fit together and seem to clash (again it’s a matter of pure physics). To the ear the sound can be almost jarring, and certainly noticeable. To some uneducated ears dissonance might often simply sound like wrong notes or mistakes. Yet dissonance is vital to music. Without dissonance music would be intolerably bland and dull, like a meal that has no seasoning, or a spice dish with no spice (or a blog with no controversy!). But just as too much seasoning or spice can actually dull the palate to the excitement of the flavour, so too much dissonance in music, without any contrasting consonance, becomes meaningless. In truth dissonance can be a thing of great beauty, but when overused can begin to sound not just ugly, but dull even. With no relevance to its surroundings, a constant over repetitive dissonance dulls the aural palate to such an extent that all sounds, dissonant and non-dissonant, begin to lose their meaning. Perhaps this was what Schoenberg was referring to in his 'musical evolution' description of consonances and dissonances eventually becoming indistinguishable in this 'wonderful' new world of no tonality and keys; if so it's a recipe for music for the brain dead. Composers throughout the ages have used dissonance with great effect, heightening the emotional intensity of their work in a way that is very special. Used with great skill it becomes one of music’s most powerful tools. By contrast, in Schoenberg (and his followers) all the dissonant knives have become dull, all the sharpness is gone, and gone is the tension that is the life blood of so much great music.
As Schoenberg’s school of thought gained ascendancy in music establishments the general public, by and large, soon began to forget about the existence of contemporary ‘classical’ music, as the many genres of pop speedily engulfed the world, the airwaves, and every form of sound reproduction. This only increased the desire of classical music ‘hard-liners’ to be even more zealous in their search for so-called ‘originality’. A new characteristic was added to this mix: the ‘unpopular’. It became something to be proud of if no one liked your work. To be truly original meant being extremely ‘unpopular’ and so it provided ample excuse for the continuation of anything that was failing, such as the BBC’s classical radio station Radio 3, whose audience until very recently was dwindling at an alarming rate as it became increasingly irrelevant to most people. Yet its existence continued, funded ironically enough through the UK government’s taxation of its own population, most of whom never tuned in to the station.
It should be pointed out here that there is nothing to be gained on either side of the argument for and against 'popularity'. The oft-repeated criticism of the ‘popular’ side of this debate (that ‘unpopular’ artists are always very keen to point out) is that the artist has sold his soul to the devil and is high bent on achieving maximum popularity and maximum financial gain for his terrible (implied) work. As I said, either point of view is unsatisfactory, and ridiculously over-simplistic in any case. Strangely enough, those who represent the ‘unpopular front’ never adequately explain, during their arguments against commercialism, the dichotomy of the many hundreds of ‘unpopular’ artists who have made a very comfortable living from government sponsored commissions, university positions, music college tenures, etc..
If you keep your ear to the ground you will frequently hear an argument that has often been made in defense of ‘unpopular originality’ – the ‘starving artiste syndrome’ you might call it, the implication being that the artist’s work can only be measured in inverse proportion to its success. But again past examples are being ignored. In a survey of past works of art it’s possible to find works revolutionary and conservative, popular and unpopular, yet there is no consistent match between conservative and popular or revolutionary and unpopular, or the other way round for that matter. Yes, it’s true that Johann Sebastian Bach offended a few narrow-minded town councilors with his bold harmonies, and one German critic in particular became obsessed with knocking what he saw as the nonsensical originality of Chopin’s music. Yet at the same time both composers enjoyed tremendous popularity from their listeners. A concert featuring Chopin’s newest works was even more eagerly attended than a concert featuring works he had played previously. The same was true in the public response to Mozart’s new and old works, with his new works being much more keenly anticipated, so much so that Mozart actually felt the public pressure to write and present something new each time he performed.
Yet in the 20th century a whole new development arose as a result of the ‘unpopular originality’ psychology: the ‘unpopular’ new music concert was born. Putting ‘newly composed classical music’ into a concert became a guaranteed way of depleting the audience in the 20th century. Never before had this situation existed: it was truly a phenomenon of the 20th century. But of course as audiences ‘stayed away’ so classical composers became ‘encouraged’ by this lack of support, as it seemed to only justify their position as truly ‘original’ (and therefore unpopular) creative artists.
By necessity I must point out yet again, as it can’t be emphasised enough, that just because I am attacking on one side of this argument doesn’t mean the opposite is true. The fact that a work is popular is in no way a badge of its quality. Quite apart from anything else, the reasons why a work is popular have to be called into question. One reason people often say they enjoy a piece of music is simply because they ‘recognise’ it. For example the slow movement of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight' Sonata is easily more popular than the equally moving (and immediately attractive) slow movement of his Sonata in C Opus 2 no.3, for no other reason than people ‘know’ the 'Moonlight' Sonata; they recognise it, therefore they think they ‘like’ it. But it would be foolish to draw the conclusion from this that Beethoven's 'Moonlight' sonata slow movement is therefore better than the slow movement of his Op.2 no.3 (just as it would be equally foolish for the musical ‘elite’ to decide the Moonlight is less good because it is more popular).
I will be exploring the whole theme of ‘originality versus popularity in art’ in future blogs. This is just to wet people’s toes.
The only conclusion for an artist is to create what they believe in, “without regard to praise or blame” (as an astute contemporary of Chopin, Sophie Leo, observed when listening to him). If you are true to yourself what you create will be original (you don’t have to try to do anything). And if you have nothing to say, there’s unfortunately nothing in the world that will help you say it!
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ADDENDUM TO THIS POST
New composers of tonal classical music
An excellent and extremely erudite article by the composer David Arditti on the plight of ‘tonal classical music’ in a century dominated by atonality, minimalism and other 20th century musical trends can be found here. Arditti's succinct article is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic.
Sophie Leo's description of Chopin
Sophie Leo was the wife of Chopin's banker Auguste Leo. Auguste Leo was a close friend of Chopin, as well as his financial advisor and intermediary in the composer's dealings with foreign publishers. The couple held regular musical soirées at their Paris home and Chopin dedicated his Polonaise Op.53 to Auguste. Sophie Leo's wonderful description of Chopin, first published anonymously, is worth quoting at length:
“No one who has not known Chopin will ever be able to imagine a being like him or to conceive to what exaltation the soul, before its release from its mortal shell, can attain; no one who has not heard Chopin’s compositions played by their composer will ever have an intimation of how, quite without regard to tradition, or to praise or blame, the purest inspiration may be carried along on the wings of the spirit. Chopin was himself, surely the first, probably the eternally unique manifestation of his species… He appeared hardly to touch the piano; one might have thought an instrument superfluous. There was no suggestion of the mechanical; the flute-like murmur of his playing had the ethereal effect of Aeolian harps. Yet despite these gifts, to which there was nowhere in the wide world a parallel, Chopin was gracious, modest, and unassuming. He was not a pianist of the modern school, but, in his own way, had created a style of his own, a style that one cannot describe. Whether appearing in the private salon or in the concert hall he stepped quietly and modestly to the piano, was satisfied with whatever seat had been provided, showed at once by his simple dress and natural bearing that all forms of affectation and charlatanry were distasteful to him, and, without any sort of introduction, at once began his soulful and heartfelt performance. He was above setting off his talent by appearing before the public with long, disheveled hair, or with a lorgnette, or with coquetry. He offered art, not artifice, and gave it a dignified setting, not a grotesque one”.
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