By: Konner Scott
Recently, I bought a book that details the personal histories of some of the world’s greatest classical composers. I highly recommend it: it’s called “The Indispensable Composers” by Anthony Tommasini. Now usually, when I read books, I opt for something other than music-related literature. Considering music is both my full-time job and biggest hobby, I like to give my mind a break every so often. In this case, though, a couple different factors pushed me to buy this particular book.
First, I had the realization that even though I learned piano in the classical tradition, I know very little about the composers that form the backbone of my musical journey. I suppose I could be forgiven for not knowing much about their personal histories, but I also know embarrassingly little about their bodies of work and stylistic trademarks, especially considering how many of their songs I’ve learned over the years. This book promised to detail out all of the above, and I figured maybe it was high time I learned.
I also thought about my own musical goals. I want to be the best songwriter and composer I can possibly be, and I proudly work tirelessly at that goal. But how great can I really be if I’ve never educated myself on the experiences, histories, and mindsets of the greatest people in my field who have ever lived? Sure, I can pursue a path that’s authentically me, but my experience in other fields has taught me that learning from the best mentors you can find is akin to taking drastic shortcuts to wherever you’re trying to go. Why wouldn’t it be the same with music?
As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve been learning some amazing things about the classical musicians who basically raised me. I learned that Mozart was touring Europe and performing for royalty before he even turned six years old. I learned that Robert Schumann suffered greatly from what we now think is Bipolar Disorder, to the extent that it drove him to a suicide attempt. I learned that Chopin was raised in Poland but lived his entire adult life in Paris. I learned that he never felt truly at home in either place.
I’ve learned about the anatomy of symphonies and sonatas. I’ve learned that Beethoven had a flair for the unconventional and the dramatic, while Bach’s legendary set of Preludes and Fugues were more or less intended to be technical exercises to help his contemporaries improve their clavier skills. The book has pointed me towards specific pieces that demonstrate beautiful examples of melody, harmony, rhythm, theme & motif, and pretty much any other important musical skill I can think of. Listening to these pieces now, I hear them in a different way. I can better understand what made them great, and I can better apply those principles to my own music.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is how much there is to learn. All my musical heroes are human, just like me. They had good and bad days. They had their genius moments and they had their flaws. But the thing that ties them all together is their willingness to learn and their desire to grow. They researched the tradition that came before them and they sought out mentorship from the elite musicians of their time. And I can’t help but smile, because as I learn more about these towering giants of the past, I realize that I’m attempting to do the exact same thing.