Types of Classical Music Composers

When I was studying music at the bachelors level, I spent a fair amount of time studying different styles of composers and their music. It fascinated me how the various romantic composers could create such very different sounds using much the same techniques. And yet, there were some composers who individually had a unique sound and yet could be 'lumped' together into a school of sound, a style of composition. Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were all romantic composers and yet have 'German' similarities in their music that are less similar to the French sound of Debussy or Ravel, the Russian sound of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, or the English sound of Vaughn-Williams or Elgar.

Later in my studies, when I was no longer studying specific composers, but studying the ways to analyze music, it occurred to me, much of the reason some composers shared a 'sound' was due to the way these composers approached composition. Schoenberg in his Fundamentals of Music Composition elaborated the way composers of the German/Austrian heritage thought about music, the way the approached composition. Many of Schoenberg's examples are of Beethoven's music. The approach focuses on the use of motives and the ways these motives develop. So, at least for the Germanic composers, there was a way of approaching composition that was very analytical.

I also am an amateur linguist. When I was in high school I spent three years learning German. Then, some 8 years later, compliments of the US military, I learned Korean. My father loves language and passed that passion on to me, although I do not have the educated background he does (he earned a PhD in English). One of the most interesting aspects about language is the way a language shapes the way people think. Germans tend to be very analytical, Italians and Spanish very emotional, and English speakers tend to be more expressive than either and yet not as analytical or emotional as the others. This is a gross oversimplification, but the base concept is that the mental state of the people is greatly affected by the language they learn to speak.

If this is the case, then so too must the way we learn music (and the language we speak) affect the way we compose. During my fourth year analysis class, I thrilled to learn about Schoenberg's method of analysis, and conversely the Viennese method of composition, the development of the motive. However, no matter how much I love it, and mentally try to incorporate this style into my compositional habits, I find there is a pull to allow an emotional steering of the music - a need for expression. Stravinsky said in his Poetics of Music, "Beethoven amassed a patrimony of music that seems to be solely the result of obstinate labor. Bellini inherited melody without having even so much as asked for it, as if Heaven had said to him, 'I shall give you the one thing Beethoven lacks.'" Beethoven's music is engineered, where Bellini's music comes from the heart.

All of this comes to the forefront while I am reading the book Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, the man who wrote Awakingings. The book discusses the way music and the brain interact. So far I am only in Chapter 7, Sense and Sensibility (with two more posts simmering on thoughts brought up by earlier chapters). Chapter 7 discusses the range of musical abilities and the manifestations of these talents not owing to upbringing so much as genetics, not everyone is musical even if they come from a musical family - and musical talents differ, some having skill but no innate understanding of what makes music music, while others understand music, but have no ability to create it. I am constantly trying to discern what my sense of music is; how much of it is inbred (genetic) and how much is cultural. For that portion which is cultural, how much can I expand and influence it?

Where am I in this process? Obviously I have some ability to create music technically (although I still struggle with the basics of playing the piano). I compose music at what some consider to be an extremely prolific rate. However, there are aspects of music that I adore and yet fail to incorporate into my own musical lexicon - urban music is just one example. Perhaps this failure is due to exposure; I did not have exposure to urban music during my formative years where the very nature of it could be internalized.

My mother tongue is English and yet culturally American. Can the culture of the United States be dramatically different than that of Brittan, so that, while they share a common language, the musical influence is dramatically different? The jazz in the US is vastly different than the jazz in the UK, which is different than the jazz in France of Finland. Minimalism made much deeper roots in the US than it did in Europe and nearly all the New Complexity composers are English (even though Ferneyhough now teaches in the US). Some of my History of Music studies suggested the effects of WWII on Europe played a greater role in shaping the direction of music away from romanticism, into atonality, serialism and beyond. But is that effect still driving music in a different direction? Schoenberg said there is no new music, only music that is built on what came before. So, the effects of WWII on music must still be affecting Europe, if only with the knock on effect.

My upbringing makes me gravitate toward Copeland, Bernstein, Glass and Adams. But my education in the UK has taught be an appreciation of Webern, Messian and Ferneyhough (even if I don't thrill to their music like some of my fellow students). Perhaps the European elements of musical culture will never become fully ingrained in my compositional techniques, but I hope my culture has broadened with my time here. I may not be able to engineer music to the level of Beethoven, but I can (and do) apply some of Schoenberg's principles when crafting a piece, even if I also let the melody sweep me in new directions that have little or nothing to do with the motive.

Stravinsky was Russian who studied in France and eventually traveled to the US. His music, of perhaps anyone in the 20th century is the most diverse and least prone to categorization with any specific culture (although he certainly has periods in his writing). I hope, my time here in Europe affords me that same diversity. It would be nice if the music I write has a voice that is not distinctly either American or European, but something new. Ultimately posterity will judge what affect this has all had on me and my music.


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