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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

A COMPOSER'S PROGRESS - OR RECESSION?

by

Arthur Butterworth

Musical analysts or historians have generally had a way of categorising the music of a composer into set periods of development, so that one is told that, for instance, the early works of Beethoven belong to his so-called ‘first’ period, others to a ‘second’ and the later works to a final or ‘third’ period. How valid are such, often seemingly arbitrary, categories? The probable implication is that a composer, or other creative artist, begins by being rather simple, even naive, and through the process of experience, evolves a more original, and ultimately unique or even profound utterance. It is true that in the case of some composers this way of evaluating their music is an obvious one, a generally agreed assessment by most commentators and critics.

It is, however, often a matter of personal opinion as to where the line - probably always a hazy one - might be drawn between one work and the next in a composer’s complete oeuvre. What, in any case, might be the criteria for separating them? A reasonably obvious definition could be that the earliest works bear distinct signs of crudity, a lack of expertise in contriving musical form or the way the chosen medium is handled: writing for voices, the keyboard or skill, or lack of it, in orchestration. Perhaps also that the earliest works lack originality and give the impression of echoing the manner of the student composer’s teacher. The second period might be said to show a distinct sign of having gone beyond the apprentice stage. What of a third period? Does this imply having reached a unique, truly original voice and manner, a complete technical assurance in all aspects of creating music and perhaps a measure of profundity ?

Do some composers display more than three periods, or others no marked difference between what they create at the beginning and that at the end of a lifetime? There could be any number of conflicting views on this.

Whether there appear to be clearly-marked periods or none at all, it is not to be assumed that a composer’s style and manner invariably progresses from the naive to the sophisticated as he gets older. Not infrequently a relatively young composer appears on the scene fully developed: bringing a new manner and originality. Later years might then seem to be less exciting since there appears to be nothing really new for him to say. While this might also give the impression of a retrograde step it can have a value. Composers in this category can often reveal a clarity of thought not evident before, as if their albeit original or startling earlier works, while causing a sensation at the time were in effect struggling incoherently to get their message over; the irritating incoherence often regarded as a new kind of message; maybe puzzling to listeners at first, but mistakenly thought to imply depths of profundity which ultimately turn out to be shallow and not having said anything worthwhile after all. Whereas their later, but simpler work is eventually recognised as having overcome the puzzling incoherence and pseudo complexity of youthful inexperience. Clarity of expression at last rising to the surface with the realisation that it is often preferable to express things simply than to try to be too clever or seek originality just for its own sake. Although this is only a personal opinion, two very distinguished 20th century composers who started out being enfants terrible ended up creating music that was lucid and comprehensible to unsophisticated listeners: Bartók and Hindemith. They were not alone. Of course their opposites could also be quoted: probably none more so than Beethoven of the last string quartets.

What might also be realised by the critic or shrewd, informed listener is something that probably most composers, would admit: the old saying that "The child is father of the man". In the same way that coming across old school exercise books, and seeing again one’s own youthful handwriting, while amusing and a shade embarrassing, can be revealing to discover how one’s mature hand has been formed from early childhood patterns of development and basic learning. The same is true of composers’ handling of their own way of approaching a musical style. This can, of course, be a bit disconcerting especially if one has always imagined that youthful inexperience in matters of style have long been superseded and effectively developed. It will be of interest to quote Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who stated in his well-known treatise on "Musical Composition":

"At the age of fourteen I began to write a song, but the latter part of it was beyond my abilities, so it was put away in a drawer and abandoned. Ten or twelve years later having long-since forgotten the original attempt at setting these words I sat down to set this poem and did so without a hitch. The surprising thing about this "unconscious cerebration" came many years later when I chanced once again to come across the original, unfinished juvenile attempt, and discovered to my surprise that the completed song, made in my mature years, was in fact virtually identical in melody, harmony and style with the original, uncompleted childhood attempt made so many years earlier".

Within the past few years I have unexpectedly come across things that I composed in earliest youth; having long forgotten about them and quite consciously put them out of mind decades ago. It has been intriguing then, to re-discover such youthful strivings at self expression and to see in them the very seeds - in matters of melodic shapes, harmonic flavour. rhythmic style and general manner of creative approach - that have unconsciously moulded my mature works. This despite long adult experience and the contemplation and influence of much other music that was unknown to me as a child. It illustrated yet once more the facets of the argument as to which is more important or influential: "nature or nurture".

This is an argument that could be hotly disputed: whether to be swayed by the multifarious new experiences and changing styles that influences one as times passes: nurture, or as I am now inclined to believe: nature.

I am reminded that Vaughan Williams remarked: "What matters is not originality but to be true to oneself"

Arthur Butterworth

January 2005

 



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