In the shadow of a genius.

Recently, I have discovered a fascinating revelation about the composers we admire so much.  That behind many geniuses, there usually is a predecessor lurking in the background.  It reminds of that often quoted phrase by Picasso
good artist borrows and great artist steals

Now, I am not suggesting that the composers who I mention are stealing peoples' ideas - there is no evidence to support that fact.  However, I am suggesting that the idea of a genius who came from nowhere may not be accurate.  Let's take the case of Ernest Fanelli.  Who? You might ask.  He is a significant but unknown person in the development of impressionism.  He is an Italian born composer living in Paris.  He composed a good deal of 'new' music at the end of the nineteenth century.  His ideas were quite radical; his instrumentation included harmonics, sul pont., he used wordless choruses.  Unfortunately, he wasn't as talented a composer as Debussy and his music wasn't played as often.  He struggled as a musician and turned to copying to supplement his living.  When he handed his music to a conductor as an example of his copying skills, the conductor was so impressed by his music that he arranged performances.  Even though, some of the music was written before Debussy, it wasn't played until after his music was premiered.  A controversy ensued.  Debussy denying any claims that he knew his work.  It became such an issue that at one time Debussy walked into a cafe and when he saw that Fanelli was playing his own compositions, he walked straight back out again. 
Ravel said,

"now we know where his [Debussy’s] impressionism comes from".
To be fair, there can be no conclusive proof either way and it is possible for two people to work on exactly the same thing in two different places.  It would make no difference.  Claude Debussy was a better composer and had he not been a leading figure in impressionism, I don't think we would be as preoccupied with Fanelli's music.
Now to another unknown.  Has anyone heard of Hans Rott? Who you may inquire.  Well, this case is a little more clear cut.  Hans Rott is a friend of Mahler.  He was a very sensitive man.  He loved to write symphonies in the style of Bruckner but wanted to take the art-form to another level.  I think you know where this is going...He wrote symphonies on a grand scale with huge climaxes, bird song... Like Fanelli he wasn't the best composer of his time but he was brimming with innovative ideas.  Unfortunately, he suffered from self-doubt.  Brahms told him that he
"had no talent whatsoever and should give up music"
But Mahler saw the talent and the failings.  His second symphony uses many of the innovations.
Hans Rott was committed to an asylum in the late 19 century and died a few years later.  He was only 25. Mahler clearly admits his admiration for some of his work.
a musician of genius ... who died unrecognised and in want on the very threshold of his career. ... What music has lost in him cannot be estimated. Such is the height to which his genius soars in ... [his] Symphony [in E major], which he wrote as 20-year-old youth and makes him ... the Founder of the New Symphony as I see it. To be sure, what he wanted is not quite what he achieved. … But I know where he aims. Indeed, he is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.

Symphony E minor 

Hans Rott is the initial inspiration of Mahler's symphonic style. It is difficult to imagine the Second Symphony without the ground work that his predecessor had made.

Now onto Arthur Lourié.  He was a prominent Russian avant garde composer.  He befriended Igor Stravinsky and did copying work for him.  Lourie was one of the first composers in modern music to leave an empty space where there were empty bars. Stravinsky may have been influenced by the layout of Lourie scores. Lourie was known as a avant garde composer but he suddenly changed direction in the 1920s.  Then, he wrote in the "neo-classical" style.

Lourié’s A Little Chamber Music (1924) seems to prophesy Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète (1927)...Certainly in his later works Stravinsky adopted Lourié’s style of notation with blank space instead of empty bars.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong using the material from the past(no matter how recent) to boost new music.  The worrying aspect of this concept is when the composer doesn't publicise the influence. To say the attribution is "hidden" may be stretching a point too far but openness promotes a more comfortable feeling about the borrowing of other composer's ideas.

Popular Posts