In Praise of Unoriginal Music

Since reading and writing about the lutenist Valentine Bakfark, I’ve been thinking about the strange obsession with originality. At first I thought popular music might be to blame. Copyright law has eroded our sense of healthy musical theft by declaring that people can own a certain series of notes. And this is greatly abused in pop and rock (covering up the fact that much of that music is incredibly homogeneous and regurgitative anyway).

But it clearly also traces back to the Romantic era, where personality and self-expression and individualism were desired above all. This is what M. H. Abrams famously observed, that art had changed from mirror to lamp, from reflecting the world around us to illuminating the mind and soul of its creators.

Richard Taruskin in his Danger of Music cites unfavourably Paul Griffiths, the music critic, who in one of his reviews criticised a ‘populist’ work for not adding ‘to the universe of musical possibility’. What an incredible statement! Rules and limitations are the foundation of music, surely. It’s what differentiates it from spontaneous noise. When innovations come, they tend to come in the form of new rules, not new possibilities. The only exception to this I can think of is chance music, possibly the freest of all music — that is, the music itself is free; the musician is gagged and bound, his autonomy ripped from him as he’s left to watch in horror the sounds unfold. When music’s left to chance, the distillation of sound into music form is given up on, and so it’s improbable that anything recognisably musical will happen. The only probability left is that it will be original. And by that point, who cares?

At one time, Taruskin notes, ‘mastery, rather than originality, was the objective all artists strove to achieve’. There is a temptation to ask whether classical music would be much more interesting and much better received if this were again the case.

Speaking of the brilliantly unoriginal, what type of music did Beethoven write most of? No, not the piano sonatas. It was folksongs. Nearly 200 of them. Here’s Sunset, from his 25 Scottish Songs. Hardly original, but masterly crafted.


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