“All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.” Thus the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks.
As we know, young composers who sought advice from Maurice Ravel received the ‘strange’ answer that they should select a model and try to imitate it as best as they could, adding: ‘In the deviations from the model you will find your own voice’. While writing the wonderful slow movement of his piano concerto in G, Ravel had the score of Mozart’s clarinet quintet at hand; similar stories accompany the composing of his very personal Trio where the scores of the chamber music of Saint-Saëns lay on his desk and piano. The extent of ‘derivations’ from the Russian tradition in Daphnis et Chloé is evident for everybody who knows something about Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakoff. We know that Brahms, who was also something of a historian and musicologist, closely studied the classics down to the smallest details, but created an entirely personal language. The ultimate example of originality-through-imitation is, of course, Stravinsky, who appropriated any music – contemporary or embedded in history – to his own manner. But the opposite attitude is as prevalent: Beethoven who tried ‘something else’ with every new piece, Berlioz who let himself be stimulated not so much by music but by literature, Liszt who experimented with entirely new ideas about formation, Wagner who tried to transcend the limits he had established in his former work, Debussy who tried to ‘forget’ anything he had written when starting a new piece, Schönberg who analysed existing and past musical culture and attempted to intellectually replace them with a scientifically-conceived structural idea, followed by post-WWII avantgardists who kicked-out the fundaments of the art form altogether and created an entirely new ‘music’. And yet, even these revolutionaries derived their ideas from elsewhere and tried to implement them into their own work, imitating already existing things. And we know that radical deviations from existing tradition does not in the slightest garantee valuable achievement, as postwar avantgardism amply demonstrates, and current attempts to transcend boundaries continue to confirm:
In an environment where transcending perceived boundaries or limitations has become convention, and the concept of ‘renewal’ an instrument of conformity, nonconformity creates its own conformity and grave restrictions. The degree to which an artist follows examples seems to be a matter of temperament rather than one of cultural relevance. Schönberg committed something like an artistic suicide with his later serial works, creating a mental prison from which he nostalgically looked back to ‘ach, die blumenreiche Romantik’ which was his Viennese heritage (he could have turned back to his own tradition and blossom again); Debussy got into serious crises whenever he bumped into the wonderful stylistic delineations he had created for himself and got depressed about being the one-off original Debussy at the end of his life; Scriabine locked himself up in his chord structures, reducing his manifold style into the repetition of one single mood; etc. etc. In contrast with all these, Ravel wrote an entirely new and original piece every time he set to work and never repeated himself – because he choose other models all the time.
So, renewal, originality, tradition and artistic relevance are complex, sophisticated and multi-interpretable concepts which have to be handled with great care.