In his last quartets and sonatas, Beethoven made many unprecedented choices in form and vocabulary, choices that broke dramatically with convention, yet somehow made perfect sense. These innovations had two profound impacts on subsequent generations: first, they enlarged the scope of resources later composers could access to their own ends. Second, Beethoven’s innovations set a new standard of originality for composers to be measured against.
The new resources Beethoven uncovered in his late period have not been exhausted to this day, although I’m sure that some would argue otherwise. But it is his legacy of originality that has had an even more profound effect, both positive and negative. The negative effect can most often be found in young composers who quickly absorb the lesson that their music will be judged for its unconventionality, to which they naturally respond by casting about for original ideas.
Unfortunately, this quest for originality doesn’t get far before running aground on the shoals of Been Done Before. It’s a discouraging place for a young composer to founder; if it happens repeatedly, it often leads to discouragement and depression.
The antidote? Remember: Beethoven never dispensed with a convention he didn’t first master. For every Grosse Fuge, for every Hammerklavier, for every Heiliger Dankgesang there are scores of simple binary dances, minuets, variations, fugatos, etc. that fulfill and ultimately transcend their inherited traditions.

True innovation presupposes mastery, and mastery, by definition, takes time. The secret is simple: find the things you love most in music and devote your life to them.

The biggest fish swim in the deepest waters.

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