Once upon a time there were men (it was usually men) who were afflicted by the sense of their personal inadequacy for the high calling of writing music. Brahms is the famous example. Didn’t he say that it was only because people did not know their Mozart that he was able to make a living? Or Alban Berg, who said that when he sat at his desk he felt like Beethoven; it was only when he heard the results that he realized he was at best Bizet. Or Richard Strauss, who said rather marvellously of Sibelius, I can do more, but he is the greater. Fabled times, when a composer would actually praise a contemporary at his own expense.
What has happened to modesty? The average college composer is now at pains to assure you that he is a unique voice who holds a commanding place on the musical scene. In the old times, innovation was thought to be a once-in-a-century thing. The leit-motif; twelve-tone technique; these facts commanded a lot of space in our textbooks because of their rarity. Now everyone is magnificently ground-breaking, non-conformist and counter-cultural. Outsiders are the new insiders.
How did we get here? The welcome diffusion of musical education has had something to do with it. The business of composition is not so remote any more. Composers are more numerous than ever. But this creates a problem: how do you get noticed? Not, for sure, by telling people that you have a modest talent that, with years of patient cultivation, might lead to some decent music being written. No, you are an original figure who is difficult to classify because you fit into none of the boxes (Note: boxes are what everyone else fits into).
Perhaps newspaper criticism is at fault. I have done enough criticism to know better than to bash critics as a class. The truth is that newspaper criticism can be hard, ungrateful work. But critical reputations are not made by pointing out that this has been an enjoyable concert season, though marginally less so than the last. No, trends and counter-trends must be spotted, emerging talents (talents are usually emerging in music journalism) identified, and declining reputations lamented. Well, if we must have all of this, at least let’s leave it to the critics.
Composers need to pipe down. The motto should be: we write music, others judge it. In practice, this means not publishing propaganda telling listeners that they are bourgeois philistines. It means not inviting them to consider your fearless assault on gender and narrative norms. It means not bullying, brow-beating or special-pleading. It means not begging consideration of your status as an opponent of the establishment (Note: the establishment is what everybody else belongs to).
So this is a plea for modesty. Composers could think of modesty as sensible self-prognosis. In the longer view, after all, it will very probably be the accurate one as well.