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Thread: Were the Great Composers of the Past Talented or the Product of a More Fruitful Age

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    Default Were the Great Composers of the Past Talented or the Product of a More Fruitful Age

    I was waxing lyrical to a friend recently about the quality of classical music compared with modern music. I explained that classical music has centuries of composers to call upon whereas modern music, in all its forms, derives, by definition, from people living now or recently and, as such, the well of talent is not likley to be as deep. He pointed out that classical music had been primarily the preserve of a small elite of the population (he might also have pointed out that the living population of the past was significantly smaller than it is today) so my point was not valid.
    The point he made I felt was interesting and valid so I thought I would put a question to the forum based upon it.
    Great composers of the past such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the like, seem to stand as justified giants of music. Why should this be so, given that the population of people such composers were drawn from was so small?
    For my part, I think that greatness is a function not just of ones ability but the era in which one lives. There can be little doubt that people with the same level of talent are around today, but how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music. And, despite the fact that we live in a more egalitarian society, which seems to give people with talent a chance to succeed, access to academies of music brilliance is still for the elite, so much of the talent that exists lacks the knowledge of music, if not the expressive postential, to build upon the talents of past masters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Martin E View Post
    how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music.
    Have you checked out any contemporary art music? There is modern music that makes the five voice fugal coda in the final movement of Mozart's 41st symphony, look like child's play.



    Quote Originally Posted by Martin E View Post
    so much of the talent that exists lacks the knowledge of music, if not the expressive postential, to build upon the talents of past masters.
    The thing is: what one calls 'music', isn't confined to diatonic tonal pieces in the sonata allegro form. There is nothing to 'build' off of from past masters (I'm assuming your suggesting composers from eras of the past): we have built a skyscraper and it is at the top of the mesosphere. Continuing to compose as such, just produces redundancy. Today's composers are very knowing of the 'knowledge of music' (and by that, I assume you are insinuating the ability to write a charming piece with soaring melodies?). We are just choosing not to beat dead horses with billy clubs.

    There is plenty of music that is happening today, there is plenty of new ground for expressive potential being explored. You just need to get with the times.

    I would suggest reading, "The Rest is Noise" by Alex Ross to gain a better understanding of music in the 20th century.
    Last edited by PhillipPark; Jul-18-2011 at 18:59.
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    There is more good modern music than there is good old music though. (I know that depends on where the cut-off point for modern to old is. i.e. to some a Kool and the Gang song is an 'oldie'. I normally use post-WW2 as a compensatory standard timescale for the modern era)

    Quote Originally Posted by PhillipPark View Post
    I would suggest reading, "The Rest is Noise" by Alex Ross to gain a better understanding of music in the 20th century.
    It's an enjoyable read but surely there must be something a bit more comprehensive and inclusive than that. Ross seems to get stuck on Strauss, Britten and Sibelius for much of it, if I remember correctly.

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    David Cope, New Directions in Music

    Ross's book is also extremely gossipy and relentlessly focussed on the dark and the gritty. Dark and gritty are both fine things, of course, but they're not the only things (and they're not even the typical things). Besides, the nineteenth century was plenty dark and gritty, and no one that I know of finds an echo of the pain and suffering of the nineteenth century in oh say Schumann's Spring Symphony....

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    This point of view may be a bit out of the beaten path, but here goes...

    Can it not be said that music is music, and that there's alot of good music being composed and interpreted today - most of which isn't concert music in the classic sense, but rather "popular" music. Isn't the works of, say, Mozart the pop music of the 18th century, or am I out to luinch on this?

    If you take that point of view, then we can only judge "today's" music in twenty or thirty years, and see what has endured. The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Neil Young, don't they have GREAT music that has endured the test of time, and isn't that as musically valuable as, say, serial electro-acoustic things-a-ma-bob from late 20th-early 21st century 'concert-grade' new music?

    Just my 2 cents...

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    Quote Originally Posted by PhillipPark View Post
    Have you checked out any contemporary art music? There is modern music that makes the five voice fugal coda in the final movement of Mozart's 41st symphony, look like child's play
    Where?

    Pieśni ma, tyś jest gwiazdą za granicą świata!
    I wzrok ziemski, do ciebie wysłany za gońca,
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    Domyśla się, że to słońca,
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    Quote Originally Posted by Martin E View Post
    There can be little doubt that people with the same level of talent are around today, but how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music.
    If they were capable Beethovens, the lure of money wouldn't affect the type of music they write.

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    Mozart walked through the streets of Prague and immensely enjoyed the fact, that the common people there were humming tunes from his Nozze di Figaro. In those days music was just part of the daily city life. During the 19th century one may notice the introduction of religious reverence with regard to 'the genius', 'classical music' and star performers like Paganini and so on. Very quickly classical music was raised on a pedestal and preservation measures were taken as if people were dealing with museum items. So for me the big difference with regard to music (classical and so on) has come with the beginning of the 19th century. Before 1800 nobody cared to much to save something of the hits of the day/year. After 1800 a museal atmosphere was introduced. These museal preservation-for-posterity attempts are on the one hand to be welcomed, on the other hand: classical music has got this museal artificial life surroundings. Nowadays common people in the street see 'classical music' as part of a museal exhibition. 'Modern' music doesn't alter this, it just enlarges the museal collection.....

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    To put forth a much oversimplified answer, the increasing breadth of the field might be making it harder to gain real depth of understanding into any particular form. As a result today's musicians may be too involved with fusion and eclecticism and not enough with forging their own stylistic forms.

    But more importantly I wonder if we may just be putting composers from the past on some kind of pedestal, not out of any substantial consideration for the quality of their music, but merely because of nostalgia for the times that they were in. We can't possibly appreciate classical music from the same perspective (or even in the same way) as people in the past did, or as we can with contemporary music. Parts of the culture and zeitgeist of the past is inevitably lost on us. Whereas modern music is much more accessible and "easier" for us because it draws on influences and experiences that are immediate and familiar to us, and because of this cognitive "easiness", it may - just may - be possible that we are biased to deem the latter as being less worthwhile.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Martin E View Post
    I was waxing lyrical to a friend recently about the quality of classical music compared with modern music. I explained that classical music has centuries of composers to call upon whereas modern music, in all its forms, derives, by definition, from people living now or recently and, as such, the well of talent is not likley to be as deep. He pointed out that classical music had been primarily the preserve of a small elite of the population (he might also have pointed out that the living population of the past was significantly smaller than it is today) so my point was not valid.
    The point he made I felt was interesting and valid so I thought I would put a question to the forum based upon it.
    Great composers of the past such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the like, seem to stand as justified giants of music. Why should this be so, given that the population of people such composers were drawn from was so small?
    For my part, I think that greatness is a function not just of ones ability but the era in which one lives. There can be little doubt that people with the same level of talent are around today, but how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music. And, despite the fact that we live in a more egalitarian society, which seems to give people with talent a chance to succeed, access to academies of music brilliance is still for the elite, so much of the talent that exists lacks the knowledge of music, if not the expressive postential, to build upon the talents of past masters.
    Interesting question. There is another observation though, that many of the past composers (certainly the ones that you mentioned and just about every second other) were also virtuoso performers. They were definitely not just composers but understood something else about the intrinsic idiom of instruments and music performance. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Greig, Debussy, Rachmaninov; you name them, were all keyboard virtuosos of their days for example, and obviously wrote their masterpieces accordingly. Improvisation was an integral part of their artisitc creativity, something that "modern classical/non-pop"(*) obviously lacks in relative comparison (but not absolutely). I wonder if that has any correlation?


    (*) I quite like that term "non-pop", sort of like a large fish net that fishmongers use to haul up anything they can catch from the vast depths of the ocean, including rotten and dead carcus, and pollution. Anything goes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PhillipPark View Post
    Have you checked out any contemporary art music? There is modern music that makes the five voice fugal coda in the final movement of Mozart's 41st symphony, look like child's play.
    Do share an example or two. Many of us here would like to listen to such pieces.

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    I was waxing lyrical to a friend recently about the quality of classical music compared with modern music. I explained that classical music has centuries of composers to call upon whereas modern music, in all its forms, derives, by definition, from people living now or recently and, as such, the well of talent is not likley to be as deep. He pointed out that classical music had been primarily the preserve of a small elite of the population (he might also have pointed out that the living population of the past was significantly smaller than it is today) so my point was not valid.

    Does the size of the audience make a work of art more or less "relevant"? Is Spiderman 3 a greater movie than Bergman's Persona because it sold far more tickets? Personally, I am of the belief that the size of the audience... during the artist's life time... is largely irrelevant. There is popular crap and popular works of real genius and there is crap with the most limited audience... and truly masterful work with an equally limited audience. What matters to the individual listener is what he or she likes. What matters in terms of what music (or art of any sort) survives is whether a work can continue to attract an audience of those who are most serious about that art form.

    The point he made I felt was interesting and valid so I thought I would put a question to the forum based upon it.
    Great composers of the past such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the like, seem to stand as justified giants of music. Why should this be so, given that the population of people such composers were drawn from was so small?


    They are seen as giants of music because those individuals who have invested the most in the exploration, appreciation, and understanding of music have continued to recognize their achievements... over the passage of time... regardless of the populist whims and fading fancies. Great art has always been "elitist" in the sense that it is an "elite" audience that decides what music survives and is the most admired. It wasn't the masses who were supporting Michelangelo, Dante, or Bach. Unfortunately, in the past this "elite" audience was limited to an aristocratic elite... an elite of social class. Undoubtedly, there was a wealth of popular/folk music at any time in history... but lacking the education of the elite composers they had no way of preserving their efforts and passing them on to future generations.

    With the innovation of sound recording this began to change. At the same time we get the use of the term "classical music" clearly intending to differentiate some music from that of popular forms such as dance hall music, music of the cabarets, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, etc... Looking over the whole of "classical music" however, we are forced to recognize that the term dos not denote either a style or a genre. The music of Byzantine Greece is a world apart from that of Italian Baroque opera, the Romantic string quartet, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Scelsi, Philip Glass, etc... "classical music" can be seen to have absorbed and employed elements from nearly every style and genre of music known so that the boundaries between "classical" music and other styles has become increasingly blurred. Ultimately, I see the term "classical music" as not denoting a style, but rather a value judgment... it is a term that embraces the best of all music just as "Classic Literature" is not a style of literature... but a collection of the finest of every literary genre and style.

    For my part, I think that greatness is a function not just of ones ability but the era in which one lives. There can be little doubt that people with the same level of talent are around today, but how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music. And, despite the fact that we live in a more egalitarian society, which seems to give people with talent a chance to succeed, access to academies of music brilliance is still for the elite, so much of the talent that exists lacks the knowledge of music, if not the expressive postential, to build upon the talents of past masters.

    Considering what I stated above, I don't see that it matters whether a composer elects to work within a traditional symphonic form, jazz, rock, or somewhere completely out in left field. In every style there will be music of real merit... and there will be crap. I assume that most artists attempt to create the art that they personally believe in... but most art is mediocre at best. A small amount will survive.

    What the best art is here and now is always open to debate. Without the advantage of hindsight it is far more difficult to discern the really good and even the great from everything else... especially when one considers how the best new art often employs a vocabulary or a language that is new and challenging... that hasn't been digested by the larger culture. Remember that Bach was not seen as a giant in his time nor was Shakespeare. They became giants after generations of subsequent composers and writers building upon their work... until it has become a core part of our musical and literary traditions.

    Looking back at the 20th century we might discern any number of "giants" in the arts: Picasso, Matisse, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Proust, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, etc... The closer we come to our own time, however, the more challenging this becomes... and the more disagreements there will be about the "good" the "bad" and the "ugly".

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    how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music.

    Have you checked out any contemporary art music? There is modern music that makes the five voice fugal coda in the final movement of Mozart's 41st symphony, look like child's play.

    Really? I would like to hear such work as well. Of course you might find something incredibly complex... but I don't think Mozart's achievement... or the merits of any work of art... are based merely about complexity.

    The thing is: what one calls 'music', isn't confined to diatonic tonal pieces in the sonata allegro form. There is nothing to 'build' off of from past masters (I'm assuming your suggesting composers from eras of the past): we have built a skyscraper and it is at the top of the mesosphere. Continuing to compose as such, just produces redundancy. Today's composers are very knowing of the 'knowledge of music' (and by that, I assume you are insinuating the ability to write a charming piece with soaring melodies?). We are just choosing not to beat dead horses with billy clubs.

    There is plenty of music that is happening today, there is plenty of new ground for expressive potential being explored. You just need to get with the times.


    Are you sure you are with the times? There has been lot's of music of real merit from the last half of the 20th century into the present that has not rejected traditional tonality or melody. The dichotomy between late Romanticism and its soaring melodies and "rigorous" Modernism and its rejection of traditional tonality is comically outdated... and was quite myopic even at its peak.

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    Looking back at the 20th century we might discern any number of "giants" in the arts: Picasso, Matisse, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Proust, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, etc... The closer we come to our own time, however, the more challenging this becomes...
    I imagine, thanks to disproportionate exposure, a good deal of pap/mediocre but popular art will "survive". For example, a case could be made for Madonna in that list, or some other artistically superficial figure reinforced by "cultural importance". Makes me wonder how much our collective opinion of the so-called greats is conditioned by how tradition tells us we should feel.
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    Quote Originally Posted by StlukesguildOhio View Post
    how many of them would choose to compose complex pieces of classical music when the rewards of fame and fortune becon their talents to more superficial forms of music.

    Have you checked out any contemporary art music? There is modern music that makes the five voice fugal coda in the final movement of Mozart's 41st symphony, look like child's play.

    Really? I would like to hear such work as well. Of course you might find something incredibly complex... but I don't think Mozart's achievement... or the merits of any work of art... are based merely about complexity.
    Well, I don't know if modern fugues make Mozart's of any other older masters' seem like "child's play" but I have heard some bloody good ones composed in the c20th - specific examples include the one/s in many pieces by Hovhaness (eg. Symphony No.2 "Mysterious Mountain"), Carter's Piano Sonata & String Quartet No. 1, Barber's Piano Sonata, the "Cool" fugue (with a 12 note sequence) from Bernstein's West Side Story, a lot of fugues appear in Charles Ives' music (one of my favourites is the Three Page Sonata - a brief fugue at the end on the B-A-C-H sequence), Tippett's String Quartet No. 3, HEAPS of Bartok speaks to fugal or other counterpoint forms, which he largely singlehandedly resurrected from almost total neglect since the c16th-c18th - eg. the finale of his Concerto for Orchestra may well rival the Mozart symphony mentioned above, in both it's complexity & kind of tunefulness, A LOT of Schoenberg - although some people will inevitably knock him for being the "bogeyman" of classical music, but he saw himself as largely continuing, not destroying or negating, existing traditions - his earliest serial pieces (though not fully or strictly serial, but a lot of his & the other's stuff was FLEXIBLY serial), eg. two chamber works, the Suite & Serenade are full of the old contrapuntal forms, as is his song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire - mixing these forms with the world of cabaret & expressionism. Max Reger also did HEAPS of good fugues, too many to mention, in all "genres" - in chamber, solo organ, orchestral (perhaps he was one of the guys who influenced Bartok to get into them with a more "experimental" slant?). These are just a few I can think of, they are all well-known composers (at least to members of this forum, anyway), they aren't obscure by any means. W.A. Mozart was definitely not the last composer to do things like fugues in a brilliant, sophisticated and enjoyable (for the listener) sort of way.

    But, by the same token, the fugues written by guys like J.S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven & others have become sources of inspiration & (in flexible ways) templates for later composers. Keep in mind, there are no "strict" rules to composing a fugue - it's probably one of the most flexible of all musical forms, thus speaking to it's endurance to this day & beyond - hell, guys like Burt Bacharach & Dave Brubeck (both classically trained) incorporated them into their pop and jazz songs, respectively. So even if the "common man" hasn't heard much J.S. Bach, s/he is sure to have heard a fugue through the conduit of c20th "non-classical" composers/performers...



    There is plenty of music that is happening today, there is plenty of new ground for expressive potential being explored...
    Agreed there 110 per cent.

    The dichotomy between late Romanticism and its soaring melodies and "rigorous" Modernism and its rejection of traditional tonality is comically outdated... and was quite myopic even at its peak.
    Agreed, I think that the "old" & "new" were linked then, as always, as now. I don't even agree with labels like "late Romantic" or "Modernist" - it's just pigeonholing great works of art - but maybe that's another matter (my "hobby horse?"). In any case, listen to things like the famous opening Adagio from Mahler's 10th symphony, & tell me that those note clusters do not presage/predict many things that were to become more commonplace later? (Mahler was a big supporter of the Second Viennese School in it's early days).
    Last edited by Sid James; Jul-19-2011 at 07:50.
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