NB - When I first scribbled these ideas down in February of 2007, I was a first year graduate student in conducting. As I take a look back at the words I wrote, nearly 11 years ago, I find that much has changed: not only have my tastes changed, my analytical toolset has been augmented, and my musical worldview has shifted in some important ways.
In short, I had a lot to learn. (I still do.)
However, it is an honest document which expresses a portion of my views at the time. For that reason, I feel compelled to integrate it into my new website blog only lightly edited for formatting. (Original post here.) I consider it a public-facing journal entry with artistic ideas that were important to me at the time that I wrote it.
It is important to note three things before presenting the text:
First, what I wrote implies a Great Man theory of history: the antiquated idea that history is best understood through the lens of great men and their accomplishments. This term was unfamiliar to me at that time, but I now see that much of what I write is informed by the biases that come in the absence of a more well-rounded view of history. Looking back, it's interesting to notice that a list of composers containing only men did not give me pause at the time I wrote this.
Second, at the time, I had only recently begun my pursuit of a career as a professional conductor. Prior to that time, my intention was to pursue a career primarily focused on 6-12 music education, a world rife with substandard music. My mentors during my undergraduate studies trained me well in attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff, and it was that concern for musical quality that followed me into some of the more advanced studies that came next.
Third, "Part Two" was never written. I had some additional traits that I had planned to write about, but the follow up be ver took place. However, as I project forward, I think I might offer a sequel which describes my current thinking about what makes a piece "Great" (and whether and how that concept may have outlived its usefulness to begin with). Watch this space.
-- JRS. January 8, 2018.
Tests of Greatness
We as musicians continue to strive for concrete indicators of artistic merit and in a medium that constistantly defies such a rigidity in standards. I recently had a long discussion with a friend about a prior argument they'd had with others that argued over the artistic superiority of one specific composer over another. This was a hard battle to fight because, in the end, both sides couched their arguments in less than ideal grounds.
Side A: My composer is better because of his subsequent influence on other composers, and his widespread critical and scholarly appeal over time.
Side B: My composer is better because I like him better, your opinion is no more valid than mine, mine wrote a highly influential treatise, and has widespread popularity amongst audience members and musicians (not just scholars).
All of these points have good and bad, but rather than go over them as they appear here, I will submit some of my personal criteria and discuss them as I go.
The most obvious concrete benchmark for quality is the demonstration of compositional craft. Here are some elements and composers that can be recognized for their innovation and/or mastery.
a) Counterpoint: Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Hindemith, Ives
b) Dynamics: Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Puccini, Ravel, Husa,
c) Harmony: Gesualdo, Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Stravinsky,
d) Rhythm/Meter: Reicha, Brahms, Dvorak, Creston, Stravinsky, Cage,
e) Orchestration: Gabrieli, Haydn, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, John Adams
f) Form: Gluck, Haydn, Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Barber
This is an extremely general list, and many of the composers could be cross listed much more, but I just wanted to name a few each and cover composers from across a large span of time. This doesn't even include every element one could conceive of, but this just covers some fairly concrete areas in which one could laud certain composers for their achievements.
This can be a proof of quality, but even something so obvious can easily be misused. Certainly the music of Boulez is some of the most intricate music ever written, but buy our rationale so far, that would mean it is superior because of it's complexity. However, the paucity of performances after so many years would indicate that it is perhaps less than superior music, or even deserving of a lesser status than that which greats enjoy.
The composer should personally demonstrate some sense of "genuiness." That is to say, his compositions seem generally accepted as able to capture the sentiment of that person. This does not by any means have to be a serious sentiment, as Mozart, Ives, and Peter Schikele have all taught us. It just means that the music does what it claims to do. This is generally easy for composers to seem to accomplish and generally a highly difficult matter for one to completely debunk. This is not to say some bad pieces are not genuine, nor that genuine composers never write bad pieces or disingenuine composers, a rare gem.
a) No one questions whether a composer like Shostakovich is being genuine. However, the intriguing truth is that we know that beneath it all, he was certainly composing in a less than genuine manner at all times! His very life, and certainly his livelihood, depended upon his ability to mask his true feelings of utter despair and to compose music that was convincingly uplifting and patriotic. So there is a duality to even this sort of thing. Also, while Mozart is easily the most well-recognized name in all of classical musicdom (for what-I would argue-are very good reasons), we know that much of his music was written for any number of reasons that were less than for the desire to make a pure artistic utterance. In fact, most of his music falls under this category. We prize so highly the last three symphonies and the unfinished Requiem for the fact that the former have no evidence of a commission attached, and the latter has the unique context of composition upon the master's deathbed. Are the others less good simply because they were written for money to eat on, or written in a hurry?
b) While some may say that 4'33" doesn't deserve merit on account that Cage shouldn't get credit for the sounds one would here in the performance, I would argue that it is very genuine, coming from a man determined to open the minds of people everywhere to the beauty of the sounds already surrounding them. He has done nothing different than the photographer who shoots a beautiful natural landscape. Instead, he offers, natural "soundscapes." It would be analogous to going to an art exhibit in your living room, where you take time to notice everything and appreciate its inherent beauty. Does it demonstrate compositional craft? Maybe not, but it should by no means be rejected on account of its wide musical impact. I have heard performances of this piece, and I can tell you that it is a very unique soundworld, and like 100's of other compositions to which people say, "I could have written that," this is a work for which the importance of the response cannot be overlooked: "yeah, but you didn't."
This leads me to a third trait.
Has the composer managed to create a unique voice for themselves? Has that voice remained a lasting influence? Some composers do this superficially by writing in forms and with instruments and techniques far outside the mainstream. Their music often receives a fair amount of attention from certain specialist niches even if it is, in a larger context undeserved or at the very least, incomparable.
a) Maurice Wright received class time in my 20th century Analysis class last week for his innovation, the M Transform, whereby a theme, translated to pitch class integers, can be multiplied (mod 12), thus generating a mathematically derived variation on a theme. This theme may (and probably should) sound absolutely unrelated, but it's a neat little trick to make something relate to something else. I don't believe that this deserves any level of artistic consideration because it is simply beyond the ears ability to detect. Craft, I believe, is only viable so long as it is a demonstrable craft in real sound-space. Or is it? Is the unity of a Brahms Symphony completely audible? What about Karel Husa? No one would dare deny the intense emotionalism of the music, but he writes with serialism and a degree of organization that is at times as advanced as to manipulate un pitched timbre and rhythm and create a palindrome of an entire 5 minutes of music. So overt and rigid academicism does not gaurantee a farewell to overall quality either.
b) More obvious examples would be composers and compositions receiving attention for their contributions to specific instrumental genres. Anyone heard of Edison Denisov? The odds are great that if you have, you are probably a saxophonist. He has written for many genres, but has garnered attention for the quality of his writing for saxophone relative to that of other composers. Daxophone, like percussion, contrabass, and several others have a tendency to regard highly the newest works for their instruments because they are in desparate need for new quality pieces to add to their repertoire. Unfortunately, these instruments continue to struggle to receive the necessary attention from the very best composers of the age. Therefore, they continue to perform less-than-fulfilling music. Without a very steady intake of better music from other genres, their aesthetic compass tends to be thrown escew, which in turn makes every decision about a work's quality to be effected by its level of quality in relation to other pieces: In other words, ok pieces are celebrated as masterpieces because they are simply better than whatever else is out there.
The percussion ensemble world is certainly mired in this bog. Also, despite the relatively large number of fine works, the Wind Band world seems a bit encumbered as well... This is not meant to be taken to the extreme either, to the exclusion of performance of new works, which is also a sin, one commited daily by the majority of the orchestras of the world.