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August 6, 2007

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-Saƫns (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?"

Posted by hfogel at August 6, 2007 12:27 PM

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Bravo, Mr. Fogel! What an insightful and thought-provoking post. The pursuit of excellence in classical music does seem to have left in its wake a generally widespread disinterest in anything less than a "masterpiece". Meanwhile, we miss the delights of many fine works that are unnecessarily forced into the shadow of greatness.

Posted by: Chandler Branch at August 7, 2007 2:38 PM

There is one subliminal reason why, perhaps, and that has to do with time spent listening to music. If you're in a museum, and your eyes scan a painting that you don't really care for, you can just skip over it and go on to the Rembrandt next door. You've only spent a few seconds, if that, on the second-rate painting. But with music, and especially a concert work, if you want to give the composer of the work a shot, you have to hear out the whole work. If it's a concert overture, that's maybe 10 minutes. If it's a full-length symphony, that could be 45 minutes to an hour. If you thought that the work was second-rate, derivative or some other pejorative, you feel that you've wasted (fill in the duration of the piece here) minutes listening to that when you could have had Beethoven, Mozart, or Brahms.

Plus, there are also practical considerations. We are not, thankfully, at the point where we use computers to substitute for real people in a concert hall to bring a score to life. But to bring that score to life, with real people playing real instruments in real time, guess what: those people have to practice in advance, there has to be rehearsal time, everyone has to get paid, and then you have to attract an audience. It's a lot easier to do that with the tried and true (e.g. the "big 3" names mentioned prior) than with, say Kurt Weill's Die sieben Todsunden or Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, both of which I'd love to hear live, BTW.

There is some truth in these comments, but I have never felt the same strict standard applied even to the theater - where one can spend even more time at a play than a concert; people seem more willing to accept plays that are good, and entertaining, even if not "masterpieces." Even the operatic world seems more receptive to good works that are clearly on a secondary level (at best) than the orchestral world.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Geo. at August 7, 2007 6:44 PM

The tendency to play nothing but the same old
established masterpieces is a thing of the past.
Those great works are still played,and they always will,but program-ming at concerts today
is more diversified and
interesting than ever
before.We are fortunate
to have many conductors
who are constantly reviving interesting
rarities from the past,such as Neeme Jarvi
and others.

Posted by: robert berger at August 9, 2007 9:55 AM

Yes, I agree with Mr. Berger. Most of Neeme Jarvi's programs are exemplary in the way they achieve a good balance between the masterworks and the less familiar works (or in some cases, "popular" works). Erich Leinsdorf was another conductor who, in his later guest conducting "career", designed very interesting and diversified programs that had great audience appeal. It was not unusual for him to end a subscription concert with a Strauss waltz, for example.

Once during his early years as music director of the Chicago Symphony, Daniel Barenboim invited the members of the orchestra to submit their favorite programming ideas. My immediate response to his invitation was to suggest a piece that had made an enormous impression on me from Barenboim's own recording on the Erato label with the Orchestre de Paris--the symphonic poem "Penthesilea" by Hugo Wolf. This CD was devoted entirely to Wolf's orchestral works, and included "Der Corregidor", the "Italian Serenade" and the "Scherzo and Finale", all of which were absolutely delightful listening.

So I was quite astonished when Barenboim told me that none of the Wolf works were up to the standards he had in mind for CSO programming.

I listened to that CD again today, and I am even more astonished at the general lack of appreciation for Hugo Wolf (except of course for his Lieder). He must have been an influential model for Richard Strauss, for the tympani solos in Wolf's "Scherzo and Finale" have an uncanny affinity to those in the Strauss "Burleske" for piano and orchestra.

Posted by: Walfrid Kujala at August 23, 2007 11:07 PM