What it takes to be a Classical Music Composer

I sure this question has been answered by many an educator, and pondered by many a composer. In the process of learning to become a composer there are a number of things budding composers are exposed to in order to facilitate learning the art of composition. One of the reasons so many composers list who they have studied with is to demonstrate what arts they have been exposed to. If, one of the tutors is a famous, well respected composer, the exposure of how to write great music is far more likely than if no one on the list of composers is anyone of note. It also adds a certain amount of cache to the budding composer, as if something of known composer might rubbed off in the process. However, just being a good composer doesn't make the person a good translator, or educator in the arts. And, there are some very fine tutors who understand the art, but for any number of reasons haven't yet translated it into their own work. But none of this is really what I want to blog about today.

Today's blog is about Jay Greenberg, the 16 year old child prodigy who has written 5 symphonies, had his violin concerto premiered by Joshua Bell and has already secured a recording contract. His reviews have been glowing and speak of his tonal, almost romantic style music. If you read the bits from Jay's website, his isn't lush like Brahms and yet also isn't minimalist like Glass or Adams. Bach, Bartok and Bernstein are listed as influences, as are Stravinsky and Copland. (similar list as to my own... interesting)

He writes incredibly fast, producing his 5th Symphony in piano reduction in approximately a month's time (during his free time at school, about an hour-an-a-half per day). And he's prolific, having already produced more than most composers will do in their lifetime. Jay is often compared to Mozart and with good reason; he is writing amazing music at much the same age as Mozart was and in some respects even earlier (his Violin Concerto was written at 15 where Mozart wrote his first one at 19. In many respects I would liken Jay to Mendelssohn, who also wrote a great deal at an early age, had access to professional musicians for whom to write and was the darling of the music world before he was 20.

Mendelssohn unfortunately died at the early age of 41, and spent much of his adult years conducting. So, we don't have as much music from his as I would like. I don't know whether he "burned out" from composition because of the pressures to compose at an early age, or whether he just found something else he was more interested in. When Jay was asked where he expected to be in 20 years, he responded "I see myself about 34, 35 years old, and I'll probably be on the planet Earth unless they started offering private spaceship rides to the moon." When asked if he'll still be composing, "I don't know. I can't really see that far in the future. My crystal ball is not functioning."

In opposition to the child prodigies, there are the older modern composers, who took years to develop into their style. Philip Glass is 71 this year and is perhaps one of the pre-eminent living composers. He was in his early 40's when he turned to minimalism and developed his recognisable style. John Adams, another great living composer, is 61. His first major work, Nixon in China, was written in 1985-87 (when John was in his early 50's). John's later works have become more mature, showing depth in composition that was only a glimmer with Nixon.

So, what does it take to be a composers? I don't know. I'm still working on it. There is certainly some innate talent. All of the composers listed in this post have a sense of style that is fairly identifiable as their own (Jay's style is probably still developing). Their music is amazing and most people would agree they have obtained a place in the history of music - even Jay whose music isn't necessarily widely known just yet, but for what he's already accomplished at his age certainly means he should be in the history books.

Perhaps the only thing that we don't know about Jay at this point is what effect his musical style will have on future composers. Composers don't necessarily have to have an effect on future generations do be good composers. Johann Christian Bach was certainly a good composer, but whose style wasn't one which ended up having the kind of lingering impact as that of his father, Johann Sebastian Bach.

While I include Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Holst, Britten, Bernstein and Copland as some of my influences, I beginning to include Glass and Adams in that list. Perhaps someday Greenberg will be added. He may be thirty years younger, but I have a feeling he already has a wealth of knowledge I could learn from.


Anonymous said…
Adams is 61, not 71.
Chip said…
I stand corrected... 2008 minus 1947 is 61...

Thanks for noticing.
Chip said…
My math must have been horrible as I added 10 years to Philip Glass as well.

My sincere apology gentlemen. It was out of no disrespect, I assure you. The ages have been corrected in the post now.

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