Friday, 5 March 2010

Will there ever be another great composer?

I seem to be in musical muse mode at the moment. I was listening to a piece on the radio about the Diaghilev ballets and it got me thinking about Stravinsky - specifically, whether there has been another great composer since. In fact, it got me to wondering if Stravinsky would be the last composer who could truly be called great.

Before you rush in supporting your favourite 20th/21st century composer, let me explain.

There have been plenty of composers of serious music since Stravinsky, but I would say they divide into two camps, neither of which quite makes the level of greatness. Some are good composers, writing excellent approachable music, but they haven't really changed the acceptability of something new. I'd include in this people like Ravel, Poulenc, Britten, Barber right through to the modern serious composers like Karl Jenkins.

The other camp really have done something new and original, but they don't produce music that grabs the listener and makes them want to listen. This would include the 12 tone brigade, Glass and so on. Their music has an intellectual appeal, but it's not actually enjoyable to listen to.

Stravinsky, I would suggest is the last to straddle both camps and hence achieve greatness. His music grabs the audience, is often very listenable - and yet he challenged the musical status quo and produced something new and outstanding. Perhaps the clearest mark of Stravinsky being a great is that you can hear the influence of his music so strongly in commercial music, from the music of Tom and Jerry cartoons to practically any movie soundtrack. You can't say the same of anyone since.

I do wonder if this division between listenable music that grabs the emotions and original music that has zero contact with the audience and is all of the intellect does mean that we will never see a great composer of serious music again. At least until fashions in the musical hierarchy undergo a radical change.

The illustration is Picasso's drawing of Igor Stravinsky.

10 comments:

  1. Provocative post!

    I disagree that Glass'y music isn't enjoyable. I'm not avid about Glass, but can listen to many of his contemporaries, such as Steve Reich ("Violin Phase" in particular) for hours on repeat.

    But it wasn't Glass or Reich who transformed minimalism and made it accessible and acceptable, it was Terry Riley, with In C. Not Stravinsky, sure, but close to being a similarly transformative influence, imho.

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  2. Acceptable to whom? I appreciate it's a personal opinion, but I'd still these are pieces that are appreciated intellectually, not in the way the general public appreciates music.

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  3. It's probably impossible to answer your question without at least a half-century of perspective. I suspect that the answer in the strict sense is 'no', because the functions of serious music have changed. Serious music used to be composed for more-or-less everyday things that (admittedly fairly wealthy) people enjoyed before the days of recorded music - operas, concerts, sacred music, occasions, even dinner parties. Nowadays, a lot of these functions are fulfilled by various forms of popular music. So who's to say who'll be appreciated as 'serious' music in, say, 2060. Jimi Hendrix? Lennon an McCartney? Anderson and Ulvaeus? Or Harrison Birtwhistle?

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  4. Stravinsky makes you fly! He was a great among the great ones.
    His music is uncomparable...

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  5. Henry - much though I admire your wisdom, I think you are wrong on this.

    There has always been a distinct strand of popular music - i.e. songs enjoyed/sung by the general populace, and I don't see why this won't continue.

    I ought to say that by 'serious music' I'm referring to what is often called 'classical music' - but the latter is a misleading term, as 'classical' refers to a particular period. I'm not suggesting that other forms of music like Rock or whatever aren't good, or shouldn't be taken seriously. We need a better label, but I don't know what it is.

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  6. Jazz is also a serious music form that has led to innovations in melody, harmony and rhythm and Stravinsky is considered unnaccessible by some. Parker and Coltrane were significant innovators as are many since. If jazz were to be considered then maybe improvisers as composers would also need to be considered.This is an interesting discussion but one about art and therefore not really open to scientific analysis.

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  7. There's currently no great composer of "Serious music"?

    I assume from you sentiments here that you feel you've exhausted what's out there in the general media, but have you listened to anything in films recently? Video games? Plenty of wonderful music to be found there.

    John Williams and Jeremy Soule write especially engaging music that must be classified as no less than "serious."

    True, there may never be another generally "great composer" in our time. There are instead "great composers" of many genres.

    To state that there isn't at least one now is also a declaration of your sedentary musical tastes.

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  8. Sorry, Anonymous, you didn't read what I said: 'Some are good composers, writing excellent approachable music, but they haven't really changed the acceptability of something new. I'd include in this people like Ravel, Poulenc, Britten, Barber right through to the modern serious composers like Karl Jenkins.'

    John Williams et al are in this category. They are excellent composers but not bring something really new to general appreciation as Stravinsky did.

    Steve - we'll have to agree to disagree. For me, jazz music is an oxymoron.

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  9. I must disagree with you on this post. You say that "some are good composers, writing excellent approachable music, but they haven't really changed the acceptability of something new. I'd include in this people like Ravel, Poulenc, Britten, Barber right through to the modern serious composers like Karl Jenkins." I must disagree on the grounds that Britten created some of the first widely performed English operas and Ravel, along with Debussy spear headed impressionism and sent us into the 20th century.

    And the other group you say does not have accesible music. I believe that Shoenberg and Berg, Adams, Ades and Britwistle have infused new sounds into music but you consider them unpleasant to listen to. I believe that this, along with your opera post are based on a misguided and unfactual opinion that really has no academic contribution. And I believe that JAzz is music and it is belittling and patronising (not to mention insulting) to say otherwise.

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  10. John Williams is probably one of the greatest composers alive today, even if his work is only for cinema. I'd argue that he has made significant advancements in the classical genre as far as emotional resonance goes.

    Go and listen to the theme from Schindler's List and perhaps you'll understand.

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