Unrestful Laurels

As a devoted weekly reader of NewMusicBox’s “Friday Informer” installments, I particularly enjoy the occasional mentions of composers or performers who garner mass media attention for their precociousness, physical attractiveness, or outlandish personality—in other words, not for the quality of their musical contributions. Hot string players seem to dominate this category of artist, although Jay Greenberg has been singlehandedly edging Team Child Genius closer to first. Ideally, the same evanescent cultural caprice that propels these knockouts and wunderkinds to the top will usher them back down when their fifteen minutes are up (though I haven’t tracked any of them consistently enough to confirm this hypothesis), and they’ll be held to the same standards of achievement as the rest of us. However, the field of composition is rife with laurel-resters who trade on their earlier work while their standards decline. Even composers whose younger successes were relatively modest conform to this model.

All evidence suggests that Jay Greenberg is an extraordinary talent, but if his fortunes continue to soar, he will never be obliged to write another decent piece in his life. If he should decide to lay back and churn out rehashes of his existing music, he’s probably already made enough of a mark to coast along for a few decades. And his music won’t even have to be predictably bad: Stockhausen, for instance, has been specializing for years in music that is both awful and bizarre. Greenberg could write exclusively in the medium of helicopter string quartets from his eighteenth birthday onward. He might still win a Pulitzer, although his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters could be jeopardized.

Are there composers who were especially precocious, enjoying Greenbergian press, and are now major successes? Are they still doing impressive work? If so, could they get away with not? No names come to mind, but that may have more to do with my limited knowledge of the compositional community than with the issue in question. I absolutely do not begrudge Jay Greenberg the celebration he deserves—but I hope he, and all the other kids writing music at an age when I was mainly interested in Super Nintendo, continue to earn the accolades they receive.

4 thoughts on “Unrestful Laurels

  1. Matthew

    People forget how notable a prodigy Morton Gould was. I have old popular sheet music that advertises the teenaged Gould’s latest suites on the back. Maybe you could consider Andre Previn in this category, too. Both of them were initially famous for working in a more popular vein, though (radio for Gould, film for Previn).

    Speaking of Goulds, Glenn Gould was also a famous prodigy, at least in Toronto. He performed Beethoven with the symphony there at some absurdly early age. (My favorite story: he had been practicing along with a Schnabel recording on 78s, and he was momentarily nonplussed in rehearsal when the orchestra didn’t stop at the end of the side.)

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  2. vachon321

    “…but if his fortunes continue to soar, he will never be obliged to write another decent piece in his life.”

    Why? This is a specious statement. Creating art, isn’t about obligation, it is about a deeply-felt need that cannot be expressed in any other way.

    There have been many, many composers who started out as prodigies and went on to fulfill their promise. Matthew’s point about Morton Gould is an especially good one. And there are many others as well.

    Burning out isn’t always due to too much hype. Sometimes it just happens. How gifts develop is sometimes a hard thing to predict. And, as for writing bad music because one “can get away with it,” there are certainly a lot of composers who are well-known and NOT former prodigies who get “away with it” as well.

    I think what some of us are refusing to address, is an understandable and inherent envy of those who show such astonishing abilities at such a young age.

    It is hard enough to be a composer, try and promote one’s music, and still accept that one may never receive much recognition. Clearly, these youngsters have it in spades because of their precocity. Sometimes, that is a bitter pill to swallow, but it is life.

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