In praise of the prolific
"Eighty percent of my music is [junk]!" That's what the composer pictured above said to American composer Otto Luening, who was conducting an interview for The New York Times. "Then why did you write it?" asked Luening. Replied the interviewee, "I had to write that eighty percent in order to come up with twenty percent that's really pretty good."
In honor of our refreshingly honest composer's birth anniversary, let's celebrate him and other 20th-century composers who "composed music the way a tree bears fruit," in the words of the composer below to the left. Click on the highlighted text in the descriptions to discover their identities.
But first...we must return to the man pictured above, a German violinist, violist and extremely prolific composer of major importance and influence. Like other composers through history (e.g., Debussy with impressionism, Glass, Reich et al. with minimalism), he became closely associated with a musical style defined by a single-word term, and like most of the others, he disavowed the term to no avail. His albatross of a term was Gebrauchsmusik, basically meaning "useful music". Though somewhat politically-loaded, the term served broadly to distinguish music written for practical purposes -- including providing pleasure to the performers and listeners -- from those written purely out of the critically-approved "art for art's sake" aesthetic. In this way, our birthday composer is a throwback to the prolific composers of the 18th century, for whom the creation of music was as much or more a craft as an art.
Next, a pair of prolific composers who brought the samba, the maxixe and other Brazilian rhythms into 20th-century classical music. On the left, there's the member of the French composers group Les Six who soaked up Brazilian music and jazz in early first-hand encounters, then poured them into such works as the ballets Le bœuf sur le toit and La création du monde. His work list totals nearly 450. That placed him about 150 works behind the Rio de Janeiro native on the right, the most important composer not just of Brazil, but of all of South America, and best-known internationally for his colorful Bachianas Brasileiras.
Above on the left is the prolific (nearly 400 works) Czech composer typically placed after Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček on the list his country's greatest. His rhythmically propulsive style, combining Gallic charm with a distinctive Slavic accent, has made him a listener favorite. Finally, there's the American musical maverick whose explorations of the music of Asia, the ancient world and of his own Armenian heritage made him a precursor of world music. His over 400 works include 67 symphonies with such descriptive titles as "Mysterious Mountain" and "Mount St. Helens". In his centennial year, let's give extra recognition to a composer who, for most of his lifetime, was out of step with prevailing tastes -- then had the pleasure of seeing tastes move back to where he had been all along.