I suppose it obvious, but I'll say it anyway.
While we, the living composers love, appreciate and learn from the great masters of the last 300 years, we are also intimidated by them. We want to come up with our own great and distinctive voice in the music we write. But the past composers are always present in some sub-conscious manner. It is both a blessing and a curse. We've no choice but to perform a kind of delicate dance with these two conflicts which we can't avoid.
We certainly revere the better known dead guys like Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovitch, etc. and we try to utilize our own craft in conjunction with their accomplishments and somehow mix it with the musical world we live in now in order to write the best work possible. We look at their troubled lives, their work ethic and their use of form which puts into a profound context all the materials they come up with. While our written music today does not directly resemble the sound world of their time, we nonetheless write for roughly the same instruments as they did.
For most of us, the acoustic instruments which were born out of the symphonic tradition are the best instruments known to man, both for their natural beauty, sound and their wide palette of expression. This goes hand in hand with our desire with these instruments to write pieces in a form that have a certain vagueness to it. Yes, there is an overall form, but the musical details within this canvas seem to have an expression of an uneven, through-composed nature. The overall form places these details in a more ordered fashion and therefore gives the piece an extra meaning to it. The composers today certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to our past heroes who led us to this expression.
And yet, because of the great masters of the past, today's composers have to deal with a distinct feeling of insecurity. Can we, in this time, write works that make as good an impression as the works in the last 3 Centuries? Have we reached the limit of the best written music possible? Is there nothing else to say?
The fact is that every artist from all walks of life have these questions in the back of their minds when they're trying to create. It's just a matter as to how much it consumes us. Usually it doesn't so much, and it shouldn't. Because if it did, we wouldn't get anything done. But this fear of ours is always present. And if we are forced to deal with it, then we must use it only for the purpose of driving the development of the composition we're writing. A kind of benign arrogance that disciplines us in the face of our own crippling insecurities.
This delicate dance of ours can be very disconcerting. But at the same time, it just might force us to write the best music possible.