Friday, April 04, 2008

Toward a Typology of Juvenilia

An interesting concert last week by a dynamite local syndicate of teen composers reminded me that there are two principal ways of being a beginning composer, roughly speaking. (Yes indeed, if you divide the world into those who divide the world into two categories and those who don't, I'm in the former camp.)

One type is the kid who's bursting with weird, distinctive, half-formed ideas and hasn't yet figured out how to get them under control, or how to organize those thoughts in the most effective or coherent way. The other is more interested in doping out and mastering the technical aspects of the game, with the (perhaps) unspoken assumption that the ideas will come along in due time. Maybe another way of saying this is that the motivation for some young composers is to write stuff nobody's ever written before, and for others it's the desire to join the party by imitating the music they love best.

I'll bet there are plenty of (grown-up) folks with a strong preference for one type or another, but personally I have a soft spot for both — or rather, my feelings of indulgence and impatience settle at about the same equilibrium point in both cases. There's something simultaneously charming and frustrating about the reach-exceeds-his-grasp type of composer, just as the work of the skilled-artisan-in-parvo can feel both impressive and limited.

And it isn't clear to me that either predilection is necessarily a better marker for future success. "Give her time, she'll learn how to channel that imagination" seems just as plausible a proposition as "He's accumulating some useful skills; he'll be something to watch when he figures out what to do with them."

As a relentlessly dualist schematizer, I'd also point out that this dichotomy bears a strong family resemblance to one that applies to adult composers. You know the one I mean, as crude and reductive as it undoubtedly is: Lennon/McCartney, Schumann/Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky/Tchaikovsky, Mahler/Strauss, Flansburgh/Linnell, I'm sure there are jazz ones for those who know their jazz (pas moi, hélas).

What I'd be curious to know is whether composers tend to stay on the same side of that divide as they develop. Mendelssohn certainly did, but he's one of the only composers whose juvenilia we hear much (Mozart of course transcends all of this). Who's got access to funding for a longitudinal study?


At 4/04/2008 6:15 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

We hear plenty of Schubert's juvenilia, but he wrote so many masterpieces as a teenager we don't think of them that way. He was certainly bursting his early bounds in the works written in the year or two before he died.

At 4/06/2008 2:04 PM, Blogger Empiricus said...

I'm not convinced that this dichotomy is as black and white as you make it sound. I will, however, admit that there is a certain truth to it, but I think it's subsidiary at best, if only because you're addressing the newest generation of composers. By contrast, the level of artistic development/training of young composers in, say, 1750 was much higher than it is in today's gray cultural sludge. So when we search for those historical parallels, I think the dichotomy breaks down.

To think, the last undergraduate class I taught, who were all music majors, had minimal familiarity with even the Beethoven Symphonies, let alone what keys they were in. If I were teaching in 1850, they'd be able to play them at the keyboard from memory at any transposition.

I'm not saying that young composers are more naive, but the challenges and focuses are most certainly different, perhaps contributing to your theoretical divide, in a way that wasn't present as it was for Mendelssohn, et al.

At 4/07/2008 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The field of music education has changed so much since 1850 that any attempt to compare musicians from that time to ours is going to fail. This change is perfectly exemplified in the Ph.D for musicology in American higher education.


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