I’ve been reading Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford and came across a recurring theme in the book relating to personal growth in creativity that I wanted to note here.
In music, the concept of variation was at the core of what Beethoven did, regardless of the genre he was working in. He learned it as a young child from Bach’s work:
the idea of theme and variation is to start with a short piece of music by oneself or someone else (often a well-known melody) and to transform and reimagine it in a series of vignettes. These may be based on the theme’s melody, harmony, bass line, or some combination of them. The variation form is an ideal learning exercise for a student because it amounts to studying a fundamental element of what composition is about: taking a piece of material, an idea, and transforming it into new passages that share an underlying essence but sound different. So a student learns that an essential part of composing is a matter of contrast and diversity founded on unity and invention: fashioning many things from one thing. (58)
The idea of taking a single thing and producing a number of variations on it isn’t new—you’ll find many pieces of music titled “Variations on a theme of...”. Taking someone else’s success that resonates with you and riffing on it is a great way to develop your own creativity. I’ve written elsewhere about how personal development often comes about through failing to imitate someone else’s work that inspires you. Even the mighty Beethoven grew as an artist in this way.
Beethoven developed his playing the same way he developed his composing: by experimenting and by studying other accomplished musicians. Throughout his life, in all things musical he modeled what he did on what he perceived to be the best of its kind, then took the models his own direction. (60)
Lesson? Plagiarism is the first step in creativity. Perhaps that’s an unfair oversimplification, but I say it because I think there’s a kernel of truth there. According to Swafford’s assessment, even Beethoven arrived at his masterful creations by first examining the works of others. He then took what he liked about others’ work and fused it with what was unique to his own personality and perspective.
For Beethoven, whom someday everyone would declare a revolutionary, the process of becoming a proper composer was not to come up with revolutionary conceptions but something like the opposite: to base the future on the past, to master the traditional crafts of the art and then to embody that knowledge in his own way. (147)
There has been, and only ever will be, one Ludwig van Beethoven. He internalized the world of music, then returned it to the world with the twist only he could spin on it.
Not to sound trite, but in a similar manner there is only one you. Once you internalize the world and spit it back out, you’ll see no one else has the perspective, experience, or unique characteristics that you do; therefore, they can never do things quite the way you can. I know it sounds cliche, but that phrase, “just be yourself” is true. Embrace that. Imitate in order to learn, then learn to infuse yourself into your imitations. The centuries worth of work by others is a great starting point for any endeavor. As Swafford observes in regards to Beethoven's method of composition:
the music of great originality does not discard traditional form (217)