Enduring Music

James William Sobaskie, Ph.D.
Hofstra University

In a contribution to the Eunomios forum, Tim Moore asked: “What fundamental or unchanging principles are in operation, outside our notice, that will determine which pieces are still around a hundred years from now?”1

At first blush, Moore’s inquiry might resemble a call for definitions of “beauty” or “artistic worth” or “aesthetic interest.” However, reflection reminds that estimations of such properties change with context and the times, are difficult to define, and are vulnerable to dispute.

Nevertheless, the optimistic tone of his question invites another interpretation. What follows is a discussion of three principles of musical creativity that have determined and will continue to determine enduring art music. These precepts represent reliable predictors of pieces that future generations are likely to deem “great” or “historically significant,” as well as pragmatic advice for their promotion.

Any music that survives much beyond its première does so because it speaks an engaging language, bears a rewarding message, and successfully conveys its content. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin expressed themselves using the sophisticated semiotic interface of the traditional tonal system, centuries in its development and widely understood, whose resources they expanded and whose products could hold profound meaning. Each left unique legacies that live on through their own merits, without need of validation by monarch or academy.

In the last century, Bartok, Stravinsky, Varèse, Copland, Bernstein, Boulez, Glass, and Adams gave us works that correspond to these same criteria and now have appealed to multiple generations. In turn, they demonstrated that the Western musical canon is not closed, but changing and expanding. Artists working in the still-young medium of electronic music have produced eloquent works too, and some of these will abide as well. Of course, competition rightly remains fierce.

If a composer hasn’t mastered a musical language from which his audience can derive nuanced meaning, hasn’t anything worthwhile to share, or hasn’t learned to express himself effectively, why should his music survive? Possession of a degree in composition—formal endorsement from a small sect of the academe—is insufficient for guaranteeing timeless art. So, the principle for creating perennial music implied here may be captured by the admonition: pursue conscientious communication.

History reveals that “great” music often emerged in societies where competition and opportunity were equally abundant, where other arts flourished, and enough peace prevailed to enable composers and performers to practice their crafts without being conscripted or falling victim to the horrors of war. Many listeners and musicians still consider composition to be an activity normally pursued in isolation, ever mindful of the fanciful image of the solitary and frequently misunderstood Romantic “artist.” But genius inspires genius and is inspired in return. There is no substitute for gifted composers gaining from close association with their own kind.

Surely the proximity and contacts among Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven contributed to that golden age we now know as Viennese Classicism. While their relationships may not have been distinguished by mentoring, at least as we know it today, their interactions were positive, decisive, and reflected in music that ensued. We need only recall Mozart’s “Haydn” quartets, probably prompted by the older composer’s Op. 33, as well as all of those Haydn wrote after being so honored. Likewise, we might wonder how Beethoven’s symphonies might have sounded had those of Haydn not already opened new realms of possibility, or how the vitality of Beethoven’s first piano sonatas may have invigorated their dedicatee’s final works.

A similar situation may be observed among the composers active in Paris during the five decades from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the end of the Great War. Vibrant links among Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, facilitated by the Société Nationale de Musique, reveal that younger composers influenced their elders as much as the reverse.2 Their patrimony and spirit, passed on through Boulanger to several generations of composers, including Americans Copland, Bernstein, and Glass, are audible in numerous œuvres that bear certain poetic accents, often quite subtle, that are, nevertheless, unmistakably and immutably French.

It is not mere coincidence that great music arose in Vienna and Paris during certain spans when vital minds learned from and responded to one another. Synergy evolved in both environments to produce masterpieces we treasure. Competition continued, yet composers seemed to have sensed a greater good in cooperation and reciprocity. Such synergy still exists today and may be observed among artists associated with the American Composers Forum.3 Thus, another principle for lasting music may be expressed by the apothegm: cultivate artistic community.

Finally, an integral factor responsible for music of “historical significance” is education. However, it not the teaching of “music appreciation” that is so crucial, noble as that task may be. Instead, the nurturing of composers and their artistry is essential to the production of “great” works. Musical creativity develops through improvisation, harmonization, analysis, arrangement, embellishment, variation, criticism, revision, extension, interpolation, extrapolation, and emulation, all of which offer opportunities for refinement of the imaginative, elaborative, and decision-making skills that are at the heart of any compositional enterprise. Music theory pedagogy that recognizes the complexity of this process, asserts that composition is not just for those who would pursue it exclusively, and acknowledges that creativity improves interpretation through close attention to detail and effect, is poised to elicit music of quality and longevity.

Of course, alternative pedagogies are imaginable. Without doubt, the Schenkerian approach offers the best illumination of tonal structure and its capacity for eliciting expectation.4 But how much creative development will be stimulated by realizing endless exercises exemplifying all manner of musical minutia, particularly if relations between voice leading and expression are not traced, implications for performance go unexplored, and original student work is never heard, discussed, or even undertaken? Few musicians are apt to lack opinions on such “training.”

Like linguistic ability, the development of musical creativity needs to begin as early as possible, as Mozart’s example demonstrates. Recognizing this, the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) adopted a set of nine content standards for American primary and secondary music education. Their aim was to improve the effectiveness of instruction and increase student achievement. Most notably, the third and fourth of these standards pertain to the development of creative faculties. They propose that all students should be “improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments,” and “composing and arranging music within specified guidelines,” from the first stages of schooling.5 Admirable assertions indeed!

Since 1994, many American states have used the MENC standards to develop more specific and elaborate guidelines for the encouragement of musical creativity in their unique locales. Wisconsin is one of these, where such attainment is valued for its ability to influence the development of higher cognitive processes, enhance spatial intelligence, and increase critical and divergent thinking.6 While implementation of these propositions may vary among districts and schools, the range of potential benefits is great and extends beyond the most talented students to all who participate. Above all, self-expression through original production yields intrinsic motivation for self-improvement and has positive transfer value to non-musical activities. With systematic opportunities for creative stimulation in the music classroom, nascent artists will emerge earlier and evolve both faster and further. Thus, another determinative principle for ageless music may be embodied by the axiom: foster youthful creativity.

Originality and innovation distinguish great and historically significant music. We must not forget that these elusive qualities require tireless advocacy for the art to thrive. The three principles aphorized here—pursue conscientious communication, cultivate artistic community, and foster youthful creativity—offer advice for their advancement, as well as music that endures.

1 Tim Moore, “Lampl's Article re Mozarts of Today,” Eunomios Forum, 07/13/02:
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2 Such mutual inspiration among peers was anticipated in nineteenth century Paris by the complex relationship between Chopin and Liszt.
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3 For more on the American Composers Forum, visit:
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4 For instance, see my forthcoming essay, “Precursive Prolongation in the Préludes of Chopin,” Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland, Vol. 3 (2007–2008),, which draws upon Schenkerian concepts and graphic techniques to reveal the play of expectation and poetic nature in Chopin’s Op. 28.
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5 For the complete list of the nine music education content standards established by the MENC in 1994, plus supplementary material, visit:
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6 For a downloadable copy of Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards for Music, formulated in 1997, visit:; in particular, see pp. 1 and 8–13.
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© 2007 James William Sobaskie