Young people learning the art of music composition several centuries ago did so mainly by copying and imitating the masters who came immediately before them. They copied and absorbed, copied and absorbed, in a seemingly ceaseless and anonymous existence of apprenticeship to example. But what came out of all this drudgery and selfless subjugation to the music of others, for the talent which was genuine, was a sure emergence of the personal, creative self. It came as a protest, almost, because only the permanently uncreative could continue indefinitely with mere imitation; but the truly individual creative imagination will brook only so much suppression. Then it emerges from the rigors of discipline and craft with its own ideas, insisting on its own ways of going about composition.
At this point, the student was encouraged to put away the old masters and go ahead, clear-minded, on his own path, whatever that may have been.
Today, however, the young composer is rarely trained in that fashion. But, along with the rest of us, he still has a great difficulty in putting aside the Old Masters. The marriage of advertising, mass education, and the recording industry has guaranteed that we all are being constantly bombarded with the great masters, and, along with the aspiring composer, are never allowed to forget their spell for too long.
And everyone knows how originalm the great masters were. Hence young composition students are trained today, almost from the beginning, by encouraging - nay, coercing - them to delve immediately into their sage eighteen-year-old souls to come up with their unique expressive personalities (and, it is assumed, their designs for contributing something lasting to the world). When I was a student, young composers who balked at the emphasis on constant, firebrand originality were regarded as hopelessly devoid of any real artistic promise.
That situation in today's conservatory is being amended somewhat, and a little more emphasis is being placed on the gaining of a proper foundation. But the eclipsing shadow of the great masters still looms over all of us, so that our notions about originality have become embedded in a kind of perpetual comparison game whose principal function is to disallow, ignore, or belittle whatever originality comes our way.
Music critic A hears the premiere of a new work and finds in it traces of Bartok, combined with passionate Mahler-like long lines, a Stravinskian rhythmic bounce and orchestration influenced heavily by Ravel. Music critic B goes to hear a late nineteenth-century work by Rediscovered Composer X, and responds to its heavy debt to Dvorak, its premonitions of Debussy, the surety of orchestral writing found in the best of Tchaikovsky, with even a Bach-like chorale section in the middle. Ad infinitum. After a while, it would seem that everything outside the canon of standard repertoire must be heard in the context of, or filtered through, the familiar. Published opinionators, and thus the rest of us, seem to be able to relate to unfamiliar music only in terms of comparing it with something we already know.
While this is an instinctive and natural way for all human beings to handle a first experience of any kind, it needs to become a habit in a seasoned music hearer to replace such reactions quickly with taking in a work on its own terms. The degree to which we appreciate New Composer Y because he reminds us of Penderecki is as ludicrous as it would be to decry the music of Brahms because he sounds variously like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Max Bruch!
Furthermore, this notion that all the great master composers were highly innovative is simply erroneous. A hard look at our standard concert repertoire will reveal a mixing of iconoclasts and those who upset things very little in their day - with the balance, by the way, heavily tipped toward the latter. Chopin was, of course, one of the all-time blazing originals, with no real artistic predecessors or progeny. Schubert, at roughly the same period, on the other hand, introduced virtually nothing that was strikingly new or avant-gardem . He simply was a far superior composer to most others in his time or place. His talentm was so great that style or new-isms didn't matter.
There is a distinction to be made between originality and creativity. But there is also perhaps even a finer one to be made between originality and innovation.
Could there have been a less original composer than Johannes Brahms or, say, Felix Mendelssohn? Both were highly derivative, virtually nil as innovators, and hopelessly devoid of any inclinations to advance musical progress. Yet have their compositions failed to captivate listeners? Check your local FM listings. And what happens when we hear their music? Within five bars we know, unmistakably, who has written it.
These composers were too busy simply being themselvesm to be bothered by considerations of torch bearing or pioneering. And what greater originality could there be than that? Being integrated and thoroughly true to one's own innermost identity is what matters for the best composers of any era. And if you stop to think of it, what a daring, daunting, lifelong learning process it is for most of us, to be ourselves - for an hour a day, let alone every bar line of an entire creative career.
''What an original person,'' we say. ''He is . . . himself!''