Creativity and curiosity: Do we make stuff up or find it out?
The world of music has much to contribute to debate around the nexus between discovery and invention. Igor Stravinsky memorably once wrote of his ballet The Rite of Spring; ‘I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Rite passed’. He felt that he had in effect ‘discovered’ rather than invented it. These days we’re all too eager to accept such an explanation. The Rite’s achievement seems indeed to be that it just exists, a gargantuan presence, arousing the same feelings of wonder as the most remarkable works of nature. However much one seeks to explain it, the Rite seems inexplicable. Yet it’s important to note that Stravinsky’s rationale for the Rite’s composition appeared in print almost half a century after its riotous première in May 1913. At the time of its gestation Stravinsky had described composing the Rite as ‘a long and difficult task’, a claim supported by the surviving sketchbooks. It’s not altogether unexpected that the Rite has also been remade by successive generations of performers. It wasn’t composed as a cornerstone of twentieth century music comprising a series of tableaux, but as a piece of theatre. Innovation and revolution go hand in hand with techniques in which Stravinsky was brought up and trained.
Our own desire to seek explanation, even of subject matter that is fundamentally ‘beyond text’, has become inflected by a cult of celebrity that was unknown in earlier times. Our vocabulary carries a new set of overtones, with words such as classical, serious, musical, genius and masterpiece that would have meant little at a time when music was more closely woven into the fabric of society. When we encounter exceptional achievement we rapidly reach for that vocabulary.
Important evidence for the relationship of creativity and curiosity is provided by the life and posthumous reception history of Mozart. These days an over-exploited and over-exposed Mozart has almost come to represent western classical music itself. The great man is invoked to sell confectionery, cheese, spirits and tobacco. You can have a Mozart ski holiday or attend a ‘meet Amadeus’ event. Mozart’s credentials as a timeless genius were established immediately after his death. He was soon transformed from mere composer to inspired artist to meet the needs of the age that followed him. In the first biography just six years after his death Mozart was made to observe from his deathbed: ‘Now I must leave my Art just as I had freed myself from the slavery of fashion, had broken the bonds of speculators, and won the privilege of following my own feelings and composing freely and independently whatever my heart prompted.’ During Mozart’s recent 250th anniversary, Nicholas Kenyon remarked that this apocryphal statement sums up everything the Romantics wanted a composer to be and Mozart was not. Whether or not Mozart would have understood the concept of ‘composing freely’, he wanted to be needed and appreciated and to make the most of performing opportunities; whilst he was conscious of the musical value of his compositions, there’s no evidence that he ever wrote for some far-distant future. Further recent research into Mozart’s compositional method has conclusively exposed as a myth the notion that Mozart carried all his music in his head, awaiting only space in his schedule to scribble it all down.
The usage of words such as ‘creative’ in connection with the production of musical works of art illustrates our tendency to mythologize. The idea of composers as creators or musical artists in a categorical sense is really a feature of the modern era; as Kenyon observes, Mozart doesn’t indicate anywhere that he regards himself as a genius or creator, whilst recognizing that he has genius, a superior talent for making music. In reality, Mozart’s pragmatism is evident in many facets of his professional life, since he worked within the conventions of his time, stretching them to their limits. It’s clear that Mozart’s principal focus was to address specific situations, such as commissions, concerts and dedications. At the same time he contrived to produce a stream of sublime music. But the situations and people directly influenced both his completed compositions and the many fragments that somehow never came to fruition. Perhaps in the case of both Stravinsky and Mozart, it’s the distinction between making stuff up and finding it out that is problematic.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Professor Colin Lawson is director of the Royal College of Music. He spoke at the keynote Battle of Ideas debate Creativity and curiosity: do we make stuff up or find it out? on Saturday 29 October.Tagged in: Igor Stravinsky, music, opinion
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