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In classical music, all the greats I can think of also displayed prodigious performing talent (usually on the piano) at an early age. I'm thinking guys like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofiev. Also on the violin side there are virtuosos turned composers like Sarasate, Ysaye, Wieniawski.

I cannot really think of a person who was only "normal" at performing but turned out to be a great composer. Is performance and composition somehow linked? I'm not sure if modern composers like Jennifer Higdon, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer were talented performers at a young age. I guess before the age of computers, you had to be able to play the piano well to synthesize your music.

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    I'm looking forward to seeing the nominations for worst piano player among well-known composers :-) – Your Uncle Bob Sep 30 at 4:42
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    @YourUncleBob - How good was John Philip Sousa, that March King, at playing the piano? – Dekkadeci Sep 30 at 5:40
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    @YourUncleBob Hector Berlioz, who refused to learn for aesthetic principles. – Kilian Foth Sep 30 at 6:32
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    The problem here is in the "...the greats I can think of..." . Personal knowledge is no substitute for unbiased research. – Carl Witthoft Sep 30 at 12:21
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    Would you count lyricists? There's any number of well-known songwriters who aren't particularly known as performers. This might be closer to poetry than music in some cases. Sometimes, it literally is poetry - songs are often based on pre-existing poems that were not originally written to be songs. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 30 at 14:23
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Ok lets see if we can find a counter example - a great composer who is not a great performer.

I would like to nominate William Walton, the British composer who wrote many great pieces of music, among them Façade, a viola concerto, Belshazzar's Feast and a violin concerto commissioned by Jascha Heifetz.

As a child he was quite a good singer and he had lessons on both piano and violin but did not make much progress with either of them.

I saw a televised interview with him once where he was asked whether he could play any of his own music. He said yes, he could play every note of everything that he had written, just not at the right speed.

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Some composers were also great conductors though not, AFAIK, famous as performers. Berlioz (as Killian Foth mentioned); Mahler; Boulez.

  • To be honest I never understood how to judge a great conductor. I'm not sure a double blind testing of the greatest conductor would be statistically discriminative. – Shuheng Zheng Sep 30 at 17:39
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This is likely to be true in general because of the way people learn music. Composition is rarely taught at a young age, but it's quite common for children to be taught to play. Many of the great classical composers come from musical families (and you have dynasties like the Bachs), and the children are introduced to playing at a young age.

Once they've demonstrated talent at playing, it's then likely that they will either start composing on their own or their instructors will start teaching them composition. They can create pieces that they perform themselves, and this will get them noticed as composers.

So while it may be possible for someone who isn't good at performing to write great music, the learning curve will be harder and it will be harder for them to get published. As a result, most of the well known, prolific composers will have taken the more usual route through performing.

As for why so many of them were great performers, rather than merely competent, I suspect it's because most of the composers who were extremely profligate and also considered "masters" whose work has stood the test of time were musical geniuses in general. Many of them could create, perform, conduct, and teach, all at expert levels. Some were musical prodigies -- Mozart picked up the clavier on his own at 3 years old by watching his sister take lessons, the next year he could play pieces faultlessly that father taught him, and by 5 he'd already composed some pieces of his own.

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    Why would the learning curve be harder in modern society? It seems that the skills required to play instrument is not strongly correlated with compositional skills. – Shuheng Zheng Sep 30 at 17:40
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    I never said it's harder now, or made any distinction between time periods. I just pointed out that there's no one teaching children how to compose before they learn how to play. – Barmar Sep 30 at 19:11
  • I don't think this is a sufficient explanation. The surprising thing isn't that so many composers are competent performers. As you say, that's unremarkable. But the interesting thing that so many of them were/are world-class virtuosos, rather than merely as good at performing as a typical music school grad. – rlms Sep 30 at 22:14
  • @rlms I've added a paragraph with my speculation about that. – Barmar Oct 1 at 0:07
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Another example is Tchaikovsky - one of the greatest composers for sure, but apparently not much of a musician or singer.

By and large though it is just more likely that a talent for playing an instrument and improvisation will be a part of a talent for composing, and performing. It all goes together, though of course not universally.

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