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The challenges of classifying classical composers

Rick Rogers Published: May 1, 2013

The late 19th century had its “Mighty Five” (composers from Russia) while the 20th century celebrated the accomplishments of “Les Six” (France), the “Second Viennese School” (Austria) and the New England School (America). It’s all part of a trend that satisfies people’s desire to categorize, quantify or pigeonhole artists. Yet these conveniences rarely do their membership full justice, often blurring the lines that separate their individuality or, worse yet, applying a set of principles to a group whose members don’t always fully embrace them.

But ours is a society that thrives on classifications, whether it be David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, the 100 greatest films of the century or the most important people of the millennium. Composers rarely adhere to any kind of predisposed classification, though, often producing music that varies considerably in popularity and quality over time.

Prolific composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the Three Bs) all made lasting impressions on the repertoire, with the bulk of their music considered of extremely high quality. That said, their musical styles are as unique as a fingerprint. But others haven’t always adhered to one musical style.

Schoenberg is remembered as an advocate of the 12-tone system of composition, but his early “Transfigured Night” is solidly tonal; Copland is often equated with his “American-sounding” “Appalachian Spring” or “Rodeo,” but late works such as “Connotations” or “Inscapes” explore far more adventurous musical realms. Others, such as Hanson, Hindemith, Holst and Hovhaness, had compositional styles that made their music instantly recognizable.

One can find the occasional chameleon in the compositional firmament, however, a composer who periodically breaks with tradition to create a work that belies his usual sound. Think of Stravinsky and his “Pulcinella” or Piston and “The Incredible Flutist.” Finally, there are musicians who defy classification because their work is so stylistically varied – people such as Leonard Bernstein with his forays into symphonic music, the musical theater and jazz, along with any number of composers from the past two decades.

Aside from the recent Minimalist craze, one wonders how late 20th-century composers will someday be grouped. It’s difficult to imagine people such as Michael Torke, John Corigliano, Frederic Rzewski, Thomas Ades, John Adams and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich being easily classified. One also wonders to what extent music enthusiasts of our century will be able to readily identify their styles. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “the times, they are a-changin’.” No doubt they’ll continue to do so.