THE SPECIOUS ORIGINS OF ORIGINALITY
ALISTAIR HINTON comments on
Patric Standford's recent 'Provocative Thoughts'
In his article on the much-used term 'originality', Patric Standford usefully distinguishes between originality of language and of content -- ie, between means and content of expression.
The use of the term 'originality' in the creative arts has long been a matter of semantic conflict. It is indeed true that the 'plagiarism' to which Mr Standford refers incorporates 'unoriginal' material. In music, however, composers' variations, transcriptions, paraphrases, arrangements, rescorings or pastiches of others' work may be compared (not always unfavourably) to the 'originals', yet it would surely be unrealistic to dub Busoni's piano transcriptions of Bach organ works, Godowsky's of Bach solo violin and 'cello pieces or Ravel's, Howarth's or anyone else's orchestrations of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition 'unoriginal' in their own right.
Mr Standford suggests the meaning of the word 'originality' to be something which could be argued to predate tradition. The use of the term 'tradition' in the creative arts has been as much a matter of semantic conflict as that of 'originality'. Busoni claimed to despise 'tradition' -- or at least any semblance of slavish adherence thereto -- as a stultifier, yet he was himself unquestionably a staunch upholder and developer of 'traditions'. This apparent paradox was wont to invite perplexity even from admirers; Varèse failed to grasp how the author of Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music concurrently edited and transcribed Bach's works. Perhaps Busoni's uncanny knack of drawing past and future together confused some people about his real perceptions of 'tradition'.
Busoni the visionary also believed that there was no such thing as 'modern music' in the accepted sense of the term (and that's three oft-employed terms that have now been unceremoniously tossed into the blender of argument within the space of just over three hundred words!); instead, he contended that all the sounds and structures already pre-exist, waiting in the wings of the universe, so to speak, for diviners called 'composers' to 'discover' and relay them -- arguably a rather demoralising view of what most of us have come to accept as the art of the 'great composer'. In this he was, perhaps, not so different to Schönberg, who wrote of himself as a mere 'vessel' though which music passed, rather than its 'originator' per se. Elgar also wrote of music that he 'found' in the air, so to speak, around the Malvern Hills; in the breathing of air from that part of this planet, he was not so far from Schönberg's breathing of air from another one, as enshrined in his Second String Quartet.
Elgar country: looking north-west from the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, where Elgar 'found' music in the air. Photo © Keith Bramich
These factors all undermine perceptions of what may or may not constitute 'originality' in music.
Mr Standford's sixth paragraph packs such a salutary punch that it might almost have been written by Delius in the 1920s when he inveighed in no uncertain terms against the latest musical haute coutûre, berating it as the manifestation of fads and fashions that would surely pass as rapidly as they had been born; Sorabji grasped and ran with this torch in his critical writings, observing wanly that there was nothing more dispiriting than 'oh-so-modern' music that would suddenly become 'oh-so-old-hat' the moment some other 'modern' prepossession supplanted it.
Just as Hugh MacDiarmid claimed talent to be the worst enemy of genius, so 'originality' has quite wrongly been deemed synonymous with 'individuality'. Xenakis developed his individual cast of thought, just as Carter did his (albeit over a far longer period). Not for either the occasionally autocratic persuasions of post-War Darmstadt, Donaueschingen or Köln, yet not for either a red carpeted path to salvation. A prime need for these uncompromising composers was (to paraphrase Norman Douglas) to find their respective selves and be true to those selves when found -- a worthy and ample occupation for a lifetime; the creative outcome of their adventurous achievements is not 'originality' but 'individuality'. 'Ah!', Sorabji would have exclaimed; 'much warmer this time!'.