One of my favorite stories about any composer goes like this. According to Carl Czerny, the pupil of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, a young composer named Anton Halm once brought a sonata he had written to Beethoven. Beethoven pointed out Halm’s sonata had a few violations of standard music theory rules in the Classical era. Halm retorted that Beethoven had violated those rules himself. To which Beethoven answered, “I may do it, but not you.”
Why do I love this story so much? I once had the same argument with my own father. While working on a chorale harmonization (as so many music students are forced to do over and over again), my father spotted some parallel fifths. I pointed out that composers from Handel to Tchaikovsky used parallel fifths for effect. He responded that “you have to know the rules before you can break them.”
Throughout the history of music, it seems the greatest groundbreakers in every case familiarized themselves with earlier work before creating something new. One of the founders of the Classical era, with its emphasis on simplicity and elegance, was Johann Christian Bach, the son of the greatest and most complex composer of the Baroque period. He studied with his father, mastering the Baroque form before solidifying the style galant that would lead to the Classical era. His sonatas were elegant and approachable enough that it is no wonder he was a great influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Ludwig van Beethoven studied under the Classical master Joseph Haydn, and the music of his early period is still in a very symmetrical Classical styleIt wasn’t until people already considered him the undisputed heir to Haydn and Mozart that he began experimenting. His Symphony no. 3 “Eroica” vastly increased the size of the development and coda for the first movement and using a mournful funeral march form for the second. Upon beginning its composition, Beethoven said to a friend, “From this day on I shall forge a new path.” After mastering the old classical form, his new path led to such groundbreaking late-period works as his Piano Sonata no. 32, abandoning sonata form altogether, and the almost post-tonal Große Fuge.
Arnold Schoenberg began as a late Romantic composer, studying under the famed Gustav Mahler, said to be the heir of Brahms’ legacy. But Schoenberg wasn’t satisfied with the Romantic era tonality, and began expanding his tonal system into what he called “pantonality” – ignoring the old restrictions of seven-tone keys and extending his music into dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone,” territory. But for all the rules he broke, Schoenberg insisted that his music was not abandoning, but merely expanding the realm of tonality, describing himself as “a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”
Although the previous examples were from the “Western art music” tradition, we can find similarities in all genres. Today we think of the Beatles as technically and musically groundbreaking, and laugh at quotes like “Groups of guitars are on the way out” from Decca Records executives in 1962. But in the early 1960s, many critics saw them as another bland example of rock and roll, music they considered to be “a bottomless chasm of vacuity” and “nothing more than noise.” And for the first few Beatles albums, many of their songs were covers, from successful (like “Twist and Shout“) to not so much (like “Mr. Moonlight”). They didn’t start stretching the bounds of popular music until 1965, around when they began recording Revolver. They had to master the popular music of the late 50s and early 60s before they broke new ground and created the psychedelic sound of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.
The physicist Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is just as applicable in music as it is in physics. Without Bach to stand on the Classical era wouldn’t have formed, upon which Beethoven stood. Schoenberg stood on Mahler, who himself stood on the shoulders of the entire Late Romantic era. The Beatles stood on the shoulders of 50s pop. Piccolos on the shoulders of contrabasses may look small, but their sound goes far.