More Classical Heresies

Apropos of nothing, and only because I’ve had a virtual 17-year hiatus in writing about classical music (limited as I’ve been to postclassical music at the Voice and living composers in Chamber Music and the Times), here are some more of my classical music views considered heretical in my academic milieu:

- Greatest piano work between Schubert and Ives: Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage, three hours’ worth of remarkably sustained inspiration, with innovations that had an obvious impact on Debussy and thus helped jump-start the 20th century. In fact, given the size of the work and its consistently superb quality, one could make an argument for it as the greatest piano monument since Bach’s W.T.C., equalled in ambition only by works patently less perfect like Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum – and yet only a handful of pianists play more than a “Sonetto del Petrarca” or two from it. Similarly, Liszt’s Christus is the 19th century’s greatest oratorio, an opinion in which I am backed up by no less than the great musicologist Karl Dahlhaus, whose revisionist views of the 19th century have bracingly clarified our image of that era. And yet, a couple of years ago at a conference I told an ambitious ivy-league musicologist that I was teaching a Franz Liszt course, and from the look of disdain with which she recoiled from the news, you would have thought I had said Lawrence Welk.

- Greatest romantic piano concerto: that of Ferruccio Busoni, 1905.

- We’re supposed to find Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto far superior to his First, and I don’t. Brahms wrote some of his best large works in his youth (the Horn Trio, for instance), and the First Concerto’s opening movement, with its slow chromatic slide in the basses from D down to A, and its surprise recap of the theme a tritone away from where we’ve been led to expect, is one of the 19th century’s most vivid examples of large-scale tonal structure made audible and expressive. I hear nothing nearly so powerful in the Second Concerto.

- As a grad student, I took as my project for a rhythmic analysis class the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony. My classmates were disdainful, but I found a convincing example of Bruckner’s large-scale rhythmic displacement masterfully supporting the overall harmonic resolution. To this day, academia remains condescending to Bruckner, not generally acknowledging him, as I do, as at least an equal symphonist to Brahms and certainly above Mendelssohn and Schumann. One of those cases in which the critics and record collectors diverge from the musicologists, and I side with the critics. Also the minimalists – a surpising love of Bruckner is found among Downtown composers like Glenn Branca.

- Mozart is overrated. Actually, despite the scorn Woody Allen heaps on the idea in Manhattan, this is a less rare opinion than is often admitted. Quite a few composers I know think that Mozart’s perfection is greatly overstated. That’s not to deny that there are quite a number of perfect pieces, like the late piano concerti. But so many passages in his music (as Charles Rosen mentions) can be transferred from one piece to another with no change in meaning, like interchangeable musical bricks, a shortcoming that modern composers don’t easily forgive. In my sonata class I analyze Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven alongside tremendously underrated composers like Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel, and side by side, Mozart’s hastily-composed piano sonatas don’t always fare well next to the lyric perfection of late Clementi or the daring innovations of Dussek.

I know, I know, this is classical music, not postclassical – but I’m getting it out of my system. And if the postclassical era is going to draw on the classical, it will need to reinterpret it to suit its own needs, as well.