5 Things Your Desert Island Composer Can Teach You

musicianship Apr 18, 2016

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have with you the music of only one composer, whose music would you pick?

It’s an old question, and one I almost always find difficult to answer. I love so much music, it is almost impossible to narrow my choices to one. But inevitably, my thoughts do circle back around to one composer: Johann Sebastian Bach.

On a recent trip to Germany, I took the opportunity to visit Leipzig, a city with a rich musical heritage and the city where Bach spent most of his working life. I visited the churches where he led the choirs, taught and performed, and I was thrilled to hear his music played on the organ in both churches. It was a profound experience for me.

And in that heady atmosphere, once again the question came to me: what is it about Bach’s music that creates such a deep connection with me?

And as I have often before, I single out the same characteristics of the music: complexity defined by order, melodies that are arching and intertwined, and the essential “rightness” of every note.

I am delighted by Bach’s sense of humor. (If you don’t know the Coffee Cantata, you’re missing something grand.) I am humbled by his spirituality, bemused by his practicality, and amazed at his ingenuity.

Over the years, my study of his music has not only given me great pleasure, but it has shaped and schooled my musicianship, and made me more knowledgeable, more aware and a better harpist because of it.

So who is your “desert island” composer and what can that composer teach you?

Here are 5 things you might learn more about, if you stop, look and listen.

  1. Melody. Observe the phrasing and shaping of the melodic lines. How does the composer spin out the melodic lines to hold your interest? Schubert is one composer held to be a master of melodies. Listen to his Serenade.
  2. Harmony. Is the composer’s harmonic language simple or complex? What about it speaks to you? Debussy’s use of seventh chords is particularly beautiful and characteristic of his style.
  3. Texture. Does your composer seem to favor a particular instrumental texture? Rich or thin, lush or spare, dense or minimal? We need to keep the musical texture in mind so we can choose our expressive tools to support it.
  4. Idiom. Does your composer have personal idiosyncrasies that are part of his or her style? Mozart, for instance, often repeated a musical snippet three times. What is unique about your composer’s musical language?
  5. Place and Time. In your composer’s day (even if it is the present day), what makes him or her different from the others? Was he ahead of this time like Satie? Or a musical reactionary like Rachmaninoff? How is her work similar to others of her time?

The more you investigate the music of your favorite composers, the more observant you will become. And the more you study and play, the more your musicianship will develop, enjoying some of your favorite music the whole time.

Which composer will you start with?

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