What is a Masterpiece?
About 22 years ago I served as a moderator at Northwestern University for a question-and-answer session between music school students and Pierre Boulez. During that session, Boulez provided me with a genuine "aha" moment--one that has stayed with me and informed my thinking ever since...
One of the students asked him whether he thought a certain piece (I frankly forget which piece--it might have been Ravel's La valse) was a "masterpiece." This clearly struck a resonant chord in the great French maestro, who responded with his own question: "Why is that important?" He went on to point out that in no other art form do people seem to concern themselves with only experiencing "masterpieces." In art museums, great paintings hang close to nearly-great paintings, which in turn hang next to the merely good paintings, and even some mediocre ones. People don't walk out of the theater asking if the play was a "masterpiece," and don't consider that they wasted their evening if it was merely a good play.
But in music this question seems to come up all the time. And I fear that in many cases, music critics are a chief culprit in this--feeling that they must evaluate, or rank, every piece of music as if our world were a sports league and there had to be second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers. Boulez went on to talk about music that probably didn't fit into that category--while admitting that it was a subjective category that one could not define with precision--but that was still capable of providing considerable pleasure and context for those works that were truly masterpieces.
One result of this syndrome has been the over-familiarity of the so-called masterpieces. In Beethoven's lifetime, an avid concertgoer might have encountered the "Eroica" a half dozen times over a lifetime of going to concerts. There was no electronic reproduction to permit one to hear it on the radio, or own twelve performances of it; the work was always capable of surprising the listener, of making some of its impact precisely because of its unfamiliarity. Recordings have changed this, of course, and so have modern programming, subscription concerts, and an understandable need to cater to a public's desire for the familiar.
Much of the unfamiliar music that our orchestras program today is new music--because of a laudable commitment to the music of our own era. But what has largely vanished from the repertoire is the good, solid, highly listenable music of an earlier time that may not fit into the "masterpiece" category, but that would be capable of providing a great deal of pleasure to listeners if they were to encounter it. Once in a while a composer from the past breaks through this and enters the more frequently-performed canon (Nielsen in the 1960s for instance), but there is an enormous repertoire--largely untapped--that could add variety and interest to programs. Pieces like Goldmark's "Rustic Wedding" Symphony, the symphonies of Raff, the piano concertos of Saint-Saëns (other than the second, which has at least stayed in the repertoire), symphonies of Myaskovsky, Balakirev, Taneyev, etc. I heard Martucci's Piano Concerto earlier this season at the New York Philharmonic, clearly enjoyed by the audience; the notes pointed out that this work was last heard when it occupied a prominent place on Gustav Mahler's final concert at the New York Philharmonic, when he was its music director!
If one can, without precision, explain what makes a "masterpiece," it probably means a piece that can bear up to repeated hearings and still provide fresh insights and a sense of newness every time one encounters it. Indeed the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms certainly qualify. And probably one can say that those works that fall below that lofty standard would not stand up to repeated hearings. But an alternative to "repeated" doesn't have to be "never." Explorations of the less well known repertoire, and perhaps even less outstanding repertoire, of the 18th and 19th centuries, and first half of the 20th as well, could reward us all with fresh experiences. And perhaps we can begin to follow Pierre Boulez's path, and not even bother ourselves with the question, "Is it a masterpiece?"
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