Nothing Changes

The gold of Beethoven’s day, of which he was himself the purest nugget, comes down to us bright and untarnished, so that we forget all the dross that has been thrown on the scrap-heap of time. Our own gold is almost hidden from us by the glitter of the tinsel.

The world of music, says Sir Charles Stanford [“Pages from an Unwritten Diary”], is not substantially different from what it has been. It has always exalted those of its contemporary composers who dealt in frills and furbelows above those who considered the body more important than its clothes. Only a few wise heads knew of the existence of Bach. Rossini was rated by the mass of the public far higher than Weber, Spohr than Beethoven, Meyerbeer than Wagner. Simrock said that he made Böhm pay for Brahms.

It is always necessary to wait for the winnowing process of time before we can see the true proportions of an age. Hence we can never see our own age in its true proportions, and since the second- and third-rate elements in it are ever more acclaimed by the majority than the first-rate, we always see it worse than it is. We live, so to speak, in the glare of noon-day, and cannot see the true coloring of our world, which will appear only at evening. Hence in every age the tragi-comedy is repeated of acclaiming the mediocre and the meretricious, and ignoring worth. The Gounods always patronize the Francks.

– Daniel Gregory Mason, Contemporary Composers, 1918; pp. 36-37


  1. says

    I’ll never forget something John Metcalf (contemporary Welsh composer) said to me when I met him in 2010: “the trouble with criticism, it’s become a process where they try and second guess the judgment of history. And you can’t do that, because only history can do that.” One question, though: do you think history always judges rightly? In one of my favorite posts of yours,, I took away the sense that history can also steer us wrong.

    KG replies: I wouldn’t have thought that that post suggested that history can steer us wrong. It’s not that Beethoven’s music turned out to be less satisfying than we thought, but that critics derive self-esteem from piling up a mountain of inconsequential evidence to back up history’s judgment. A hundred years ago, D’Indy was considered a more substantial composer than Mahler, and today nearly everyone thinks the opposite. If that judgment gets reversed again in another hundred years, are we wrong now? Artists’ reputations bob up and down as the decades roll by, and some consensuses last longer than others, but I’m not sure any evaluation is ever final. Mozart was not thought of nearly as highly in the 19th century as he has been in the 20th, and a small, quiet minority of us think he’s been overvalued lately. And who knows why? Metcalf was right, I think, insofar as it’s difficult to make a contemporary judgment within all the noise and interference of corporate and institutional support.

    • says

      I’d be very interested in hearing an alternative view about Mozart. I hope the small quiet minority will begin to speak up.

      KG replies: Why, are you willing to join? Mozart’s late concerti are magnificent and perfect. But only a few of his symphonies are worth playing, many of his piano sonatas are noticeably flawed, and it is often pointed out that he was rather formulaic, that he has large cadential passages that could be easily transferred from one piece to another. The 19th century considered him top rank but a little precious, and his canonization in the 20th seems a little… commercially motivated?

      • says

        I’m not knowledgeable enough to judge, but I am always suspect of virtually unanimous canonization, which he seems to have. At one time, I listened to a lot of Mozart (all of the symphonies and piano concerti), then I’ll confess I just got bored. That’s not a judgment born of intelligent, critical analysis, but I will say that part of the problem for me was that he seemed to trod the same or similar territory a few too many times. What you’ve written in response here is refreshing, and a bit of a relief–as it comes from a perspective of discernment about what of Mozart’s is great, rather than from the position that it’s Mozart, therefore it’s great.

        • Graham Clark says

          “What you’ve written in response here is refreshing, and a bit of a relief–as it comes from a perspective of discernment about what of Mozart’s is great, rather than from the position that it’s Mozart, therefore it’s great.”

          Missed this until after I’d already posted my novel of a reply below. Also missed that the phrase “small, quiet minority” was Gann’s before it was yours (Schied’s). Sorry about that. (Well, maybe the mod(s) will nix it.)

          The all-too-numerous performers, record labels, and radio stations who present Mozart’s juvenilia and potboilers – meaning almost all the piano concertos before K. 449 (“14”), with the very major exception of K. 271 (“9”); almost all the symphonies before the Linz; and much, much else – as having anything other than historical interest are committing a crime against the audience and the composer.

          That said, many would argue that Gann’s objecting to “large cadential passages that could be easily transferred from one piece to another” is missing the point, like complaining that a palate cleanser is insufficiently flavorful.

          • says

            So glad, Graham Clark, that you came back and shed some light on your earlier comment. You know, for those of us who are “lay listeners,” listening can be quite a dense, and sometimes impenetrable, thicket. Now, of course, with the advent of the internet, there are more ways to get help separating wheat from chaff. Back in the dark ages, though, when I was trying to become educated about classical music, and all there was to guide me was Mr. Steele’s High School Music Appreciation class, I had a hard time figuring out even where to start. All I had was the received wisdom of those I’d heard were the Great Men (and they were all men), Mozart among them.

            I remember, with Mozart, that I liked, particularly, some of the late piano concerti, but it never occurred to me that this might be because they were better than others that didn’t grab me much. I plowed through them all and hoped my ears would rise to the challenge of appreciating them, but it didn’t happen, and I finally gave up on the whole project—and after a while, on classical music entirely.

            Now, as I listen to 20th and 21st C music, I try to do a blend: if I like a piece, I try to learn more, to figure out a bit why that is, and to follow whatever trail of music the first “find” opens up. If I don’t “connect” to a piece, I try to keep my ears and mind open, but I do also give myself permission not to wear myself out if I can’t connect, as I did in the old days, but instead to move on to other music that speaks to me more. Which is all to say, again, how much I appreciate finding discerning guides who are willing and able to move past conventional wisdom and, to use my initial stale bread metaphor, point the way to what they believe is the wheat.

            So, now, I’ve written a novel, too, and I’d best stop!

        • says

          Poor Mozart! He’s not to blame for his canonization, which probably has more to do with his dying young than with his music, anyway. He wrote perfectly good music, but nothing could live up to the posthumous hype. I usually prefer Haydn, myself, since I find him less fussy and sentimental, but Mozart is fine.

          My problem with this kind of historical ranking is that it’s often more informed by current taste than actual quality: 19th century critics rejected 18th century classicism; 20th century critics rejected 19th century romanticism, and so on. Also that even contemporaries had such different objectives that comparison is futile: who’s better, Offenbach or Wagner?

      • Graham Clark says

        “I’d be very interested in hearing an alternative view about Mozart. I hope the small quiet minority will begin to speak up.”

        To call those who gnaw at Mozart’s ankles “a small quiet minority” requires either considerable disingenuousness or a fairly isolated existence.

        That small quiet minority is legion among people who actually talk about classical music – i.e. the group that includes everybody here – overlapping with, but not identical to, people who actually know something about it.

        Then there’s the general public, which of course doesn’t care about classical music at all.

        That leaves Mozart untouchable only among the “Go to the concert hall maybe three times a year and perhaps sort of enjoy it” set, and perhaps among composers and performers of the highest calibre.

        In my personal experience – reading classical music journalism, reading conversations on the internet, talking to students at the highly reputable conservatory attached to my less reputable college, talking to musicians I know personally – I’ve encountered far more attacks on Mozart than on any other composer of remotely comparable eminence. The only equivalent I know is Shakespeare in literary circles past and present (and, in a less exalted sphere, the Beatles among rock fans).

        Perhaps interestingly, the attacks even mirror each other: Anti-Shakespeareans tend epicene (objecting to his supposed uncouthness in the 18th century, his supposed impropriety in the 19th, and his supposed misogyny and racism in the present). Anti-Mozartians tend macho.

  2. says

    Which is better, to be fêted in one’s one time, or to achieve success after one is dust and gone and long since caring? Isn’t it more rational to desire the former? What is it in me that wants to believe the crazy story of the better artistic life after death, and that if I toil in the good life and ignore the pleasures of easy success, I will receive my reward in heaven? And how do we know that history’s judgments are any less fickle than those of the masses?

    KG replies: Good god, Erling, you organize an international conference on those questions, and I’ll come sit in the front row, thirsty for answers.

  3. Lyle Sanford says

    “the reason for his greatness, which is more likely to reside in the surface elements that millions of listeners have responded to.” (from that post cited above)

    Have you (or someone else) written somewhere on the nature of those “surface elements” and why and how listeners respond to them? Since I can just barely follow the theory analysis, but love some of the music – either the theory stuff is affecting me in a non-conscious manner or there’s something else going on.

    A related question I’ve often wondered about is whether or not people who have highly developed theory/analysis skills and hear those things you’re talking about in real time are hearing a piece in a fundamentally different way than the “naive” listener.

    KG replies: Oh, there are many, many writings on the surface elements in Beethoven; starting a list would be a major research project. I seem to recall that Beethoven’s Third is one of the pieces Bernstein glossed in his lectures, possibly in “The Unanswered Question”? Someone reading this will know.

    Your last question is interesting. In school I developed the ability to follow by listening what keys a symphonic movement was modulating through, or when an atonal piece would change pitch sets, and I finally had to retrain myself not to listen that way anymore, because I was no longer enjoying the music or registering anything except the left-brain aspects. You can train yourself to be a musical adding machine, but I don’t recommend it.

  4. Cassius says

    This presumes a wisdom and accuracy to the “winnowing process of time before we can see the true proportions of an age”. There are two tasks here:
    1. Historical: accurate memorialization, records, analysis, and understanding of an age.
    2. Cultural legacy: preservation of the best cultural products of an age.

    The historical task may be depressing, as it will show the age in all its degrees, positive and negative.
    The latter should ideally preserve the best of an age, but I fear that many great works are lost in the process, whereas lesser works survive instead.

  5. Gene says

    Wait—is the last sentence saying Gounod is superior to Franck, or vice versa? “Patronize” seems fatally ambiguous.

    KG replies: I think at the time Franck was considered the musical genius of the age, somewhere above Wagner. My mother went to music school in the 1940s, and was assured that Franck’s music was the most profound ever written. That you could see any ambiguity shows how far poor Franck has receded.

    • says

      That’s really interesting about your mom and I think you’re right. I grew up in the late 60s/early 70s in a 50/50 blue collar, white collar community and distinctly remember that any home that had a stereo had a recording of the Franck D minor Symphony. I even remember one of my dad’s friend’s saying that the piece was universally regarded as the most beautiful composition ever written.

      KG replies: I wish I had the recording some Brit made – could it have been Peter Warlock? – playing its themes as ragtimes, which fit Franck’s rhythms perfectly. Subversive.

  6. Gavin Borchert says

    What happened to Franck seems to have also happened to Weber, who is literally my favorite composer. it’s gratifying that Mason grouped him with Beethoven and Wagner, not with Spohr and Meyerbeer. G.B. Shaw did too, in his now somewhat notorious praise of Hermann Goetz, mentioning the latter’s “Symphony in F and . . . The Taming of the Shrew, two masterpieces which place Goetz securely above all other German composers of the last hundred years, save only Mozart and Beethoven, Weber and Wagner.”

    KG replies: Interesting. Der Freischutz is certainly one of the few 19th-century operas I’m deeply attached to. I was a big enough Shaw fan to name my son Bernard, and I listened to all that Goetz a few times, without entirely warming up to it. I also think Hummel’s been unfairly demoted.

    • Gavin Borchert says

      That may be one of the few enthusiasms you and Harold C. Schonberg had in common :) Glenn Gould once recounted an anecdote about Schonberg trying to talk him into checking out Hummel’s concertos, and Gould just laughing incredulously.

      As for Freischutz, Seattle Opera gave it a go in 1997–a very flawed staging, but we did get to hear Deborah Voigt as Agathe. (The Met’s most recent productions were in 1972 and 1929.)

      Another composer whose orchestral music I’d love to hear more of in concert–and unless I remember wrong you once mentioned him too for the same reason–is Berwald.

      KG replies: Don’t even get me started. I think I have everything that’s recorded by Berwald, and love it all. Most underrated composer of the 19th-c, period. Hummel is very uneven, and I wouldn’t recommend the other concerti, but the A minor and B minor are stunning.

      • says

        +1 Hummel (the Piano Sonata Op. 81, which Schumann thought was the only one of his works that would survive, is also a masterpiece, and one or two of the piano trios are as good as any by Beethoven), +1 Berwald, +1 Weber (the anti-Hummel in some respects)… I’d also give a +1 to Jan Ladislav Dussek, uneven but the best works are brimming with ideas and sound at least two decades ahead of their time. And perhaps a +1 to Jan Vaclav Kalivoda, whose string quartets and symphonies are definitely more interesting than Spohr’s (also the dedicatee of Schumann’s Intermezzi Op. 4). Hmm, and maybe a +1 to George Onslow, though there’s no reliable way of sorting the really good, imaginative chamber music from the mediocre without listening to it all. And of course there is… etc… etc. I think I need to get back into listening to music after 1830

  7. says

    btw as Shostakovich’s melodies got mentioned in the discussion below the recent Marsalis-post – Shostakovich sort of mock-quotes Franck in the 1st movement of his 8th symphony (or maybe he does not, I’ve always wondered)
    (the passage ends 13m50s)

    KG replies: I can hear it, but am not sure it’s intentional.

  8. Nikh says

    “Are we better off dead? If you look at music history, the composers that have remained as household names were well-known or established during their lifetime. There is no such thing as a composer becoming known post-mortem. If we cannot achieve status in this lifetime, it is unlikely that we will later. Therefore, composing for posterity is an illusion. I have a close example: my father, Errol Parker, who passed away in 1998, and whose contribution is acknowledged in jazz history books. I was really disappointed to see that there was no interest for his work, not one performance offer, not even from the musicians who closely worked with him. We actually are not better off dead!”

    -Elodie Lauten

    KG replies; Poor Elodie, she deserved so much better. That’s why I’ve been advising young people not to become composers. The music world is infintely, intentionally, laughingly unfair. To beome a composer is to learn to participate in the corruption, and if you refuse to pretend everything is fine, as I have often done, you will only be criticized for being a bad sport, and marginalized. Having a sense of ethics is forbidden.

  9. Arthur says

    For someone whose background is largely in literature and theater, this is an odd though revealing set of remarks. To me, it shows how deeply embedded music of the past is woven into culture and style and how its meanings are about its own about time (history, if you will) and not, as too often claimed, about universality or transhistorical understanding. It might have to do with the transmission of music in scores and recordings and, for sure, the entire music industry, audiences and its notions of scholarship since its inception.
    Literary texts and authors always undergo revivals, Shakespeare being the prime example. He was lost, even rejected, from the 17th through the late 19th century and then began to accrue attention as his work was studied, then engaged with modern innovations in acting, directing, production and performance. (Of course, the same has happened with opera, which is as much about performance as the music). “Lesser” Shakespeare works are routinely sliced and diced for performance, with the effect being that his work is regarded as a whole, each element reflecting on another. Plays from all periods allow for similar interpretive strategies: Greek tragedy on Wall Street, Ibsen performed on a stage built like a dollhouse (by Mabou Mines). Major and minor writers, poets, novelists from many periods are reread – and translated – in relation to modern or contemporary themes: Defoe, Poe, Dickens, Jane Austin, Blake, Gogol…to name a few (maybe Franck could benefit from some zombies).

    For my part, I have always wanted to hear and know about the music and artists of NOW far more than that of the past. That is not to exclude the museums of music and attention to it as histories, but I will always go to a hear the work of a living composers rather than historical pieces. The discussion above suggests that, intrinsically, music is meant to be of its own time in the contexts of living composers and musicians – and largely local – which, of course, was the dominant way music was experienced before recording technology prolonged and reproduced it.

  10. Graham Clark says

    “He that reserves his laurels for posterity
    (Who does not often claim the bright reversion)
    Has generally no great crop to spare it, he
    Being only injured by his own assertion.
    And although here and there some glorious rarity
    Arise like Titan from the sea’s immersion,
    The major part of such appellants go
    To—God knows where—for no one else can know.”

    – Byron, 1818

    Nothing changes indeed.

    Some great artist really are neglected in their own time in favor of mediocrities. But others are massively popular in their own time (Handel, Haydn, some of Mozart, Verdi). And, as noted by his Lordship, there are any number of artists about whom nobody cared in their own time, and about whom nobody cares now – in spite of self assurances, and assurances by some critics, that their day would come.