The Predispositions of Inexperienced Talent

Another post spurred by my readings of Beethoven: Anguish and Triump by Jan Swafford.

Early in his life, Beethoven was tasked with composing a funeral cantata. In a youthful attempt to show his own genius through excessive scoring, he merely ended up proving his own inexperience. Swafford says:

The cantata’s steady diet of modulations is over the top, some of the word setting awkward, all of it overscored. If the opening chorus is equal to the occasion, it overmatches the text; the rest of the cantata shows a manifest straining and stretching for effect, with little sense of the appropriate length to fit the material, the text, the sentiment. (110)

Beethoven was later tasked with another cantata which shared a similar fate as the first: it was too hard for the orchestra to play. As one critic stated, Beethoven’s early works reveal his inexperience:

he is a youth of remarkable technique but with a shaky sense of form and proportion. He sets to music what he wants the text to be rather than what it is. (110)

I saw this in myself so often as a young designer (and still see it to be honest): we design things the way we want them to be, rather than for what they are. “I’ll just move this thing here and fudge that thing there. It’s not a big deal. It actually looks better this way.” But in so doing we are not designing the thing that is; rather we are designing the thing as we wish it would be (and often we only wish it would be that way so we can accommodate and impose our own personal aesthetic or sensibilities). This is not designing for form and function, it’s designing for aesthetics.

The author goes on to make this observation about Beethoven during these early stages of his musical development:

[his early works] show that he had a good deal to learn about doing more with less — one of the main lessons he was to learn in the next decade. (111)

Learning to do more with less is a trait of experience in any kind of artful endeavor, no matter the medium or the discipline. Inexperienced talent seemingly always tends towards over-the-top showiness that is technically impressive but aesthetically overbearing, oversaturated, and overdone. This kind of approach (especially after repeated exposure) results in an experience as unpleasant as a technically-poor piece.

Hence the saying “less is more”. It just takes more experience to learn that less-on.