We all come away from certain composers with a taste in our mouth, whether sweet or foul. We feel that if we do not have a strong opinion about everything musical, we have let down our guard. It’s the way the mind of an artist functions.
Something that can be hard to accept, then, is that our tastes will change with time. Debussy will not always be my favorite composer, and neither will Beethoven forever be my nemesis.
A year before college, I began working on the Beethoven Sonata No. 7 in D Major—a monster as it pertains to technique. At that point truly difficult music was a foreign language to my fingers, though I could impress people with Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu! My instructors immediately proceeded to put me on a “diet” of Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti, and Beethoven—all composers I could not relate to whatsoever. I will be the first to admit that I am a born Romantic, and I just could not feel any sort of passion as I trudged through these “primitive” volumes.
At my senior recital I finally performed the Beethoven in its entirety, though I secretly vowed hatred to it, having lived with this thorny brother for five years straight. Something I would not encourage, but at least I was able to perform it fully at some point in my life.
Now that I have the opportunity to play through any piece I could dream of, all of a sudden my tendencies have gone to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. I cannot stop playing through their works, and I can feel (and communicate) instinctively those musical gestures they may have had in mind when writing the piece. I can predict how the phrase should grow or lessen, or whether the tempo should broaden or pick up. I now understand how to make the music “pretty”, if I may use that word, in a way that satisfied my musical craving. Now (unfortunately) having heard the Romantics overplayed through college, my longing now is not to open up Chopin every day, though I still “feel” his works.
Mendelssohn has in fact become a favorite of mine recently as well for many reasons (his Classical/Romantic style and exemplary spiritual life, for instance), along with Ravel and Debussy. None of these composers were on my top-10 list before college, and yet now I find my tastes mysteriously turned upside-down. (My own hypothesis is that it is all a conspiracy by the School of Music to make everyone like everything they’ve ever hated.)
My point is two-fold. First, accept the fact that our musical cravings change over time. It is not admitting that some stages of our development then were inferior to the ones now—Bach will always be a genius. Rachmaninoff will always be a genius. But rather, some composers challenge us more personally at times than do others. Chopin taught me the effectiveness and beauty of a well-written melody and lush accompaniment, and Bach taught me the beauty of clean playing and well-constructed harmony. Beethoven taught my fingers precision of many notes, and Debussy challenged me to think of sounds themselves. All are timeless composers. Tomorrow I may be raving over Scarlatti (Lord help!).
The second facet of my point may be harder to swallow, as I know it is for me. There is a certain artistic pride that comes with hating a certain composer’s style (my list may be longer than yours!), but when we come back years later and actually want to listen to it again, it’s important to let ourselves enjoy the “forbidden composers” on our mental list. Don’t be afraid to change your opinion on someone’s art. I have some general guidelines that I believe dictate good art, but the floor is wide open on style. We stunt our growth as artists by pridefully depriving ourselves of new musical cravings simply because they are for composers we hated five years ago. As artists we must absorb music and satisfy those present cravings to enhance our own work, so unless you have moral reasons to dislike a composer, don’t be afraid to explore music you have dismissed in the past. If you still don’t like it, fine. No harm done. We all have opinions on personal taste. But ten years later, if you’re having a craving to play through a Prokofieff Concerto, download the score from IMSLP and play it! Then play the other four if you can’t get enough.
I’m sure in a couple years I’ll be bored with Beethoven and back to reminiscing over my Chopin. Or maybe I’ll love them both.