Sunday, May 27, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies Part 1: Classical Composers

A list designed to be wrong and regretted tomorrow...

-          Most pre-Bach music, no matter how great, is nearly unlistenable. Performers and musicologists still do not have access to good enough research techniques to understand what made the music great, and all the prattling on about this Jesus fellow gets a little tiresome. If the world reverts to another medieval age in the next hundred years, music lovers will probably find it easier to listen to. As it stands, much of this music is quite pleasant, and utterly indistinguishable from one another.

-          Never in my life have I ever understood the appeal of Josquin.

-          Choral madrigals (secular) are almost invariably more interesting than choral motets (sacred).

-          Thomas Morley is inane.

-          Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, and the other motleys from the English Renaissance are interesting the way ingenious primitive video games are, when you play with them you’re astounded by the technique, but it's so difficult to get to the next level that you give up in frustration. Thomas Weelkes is preferable to any of them, but even few Rennaissance mavens would call him a great composer.

-          Mozart’s childhood feat of copying out the Allegri Miserere from memory, while astounding, is not as mindblowing as all that. It’s a pretty simple piece of music.

-          Palestrina makes beautiful sounds, unfortunately it’s the same sound 5000 times over.

-          Gesualdo is nowhere near as innovative as musicians describe him.

-          Monteverdi is the first composer whose music is reliably awesome. But even he gets monotonous sometimes.

-          I feel sorry for any era in which Lully is considered the great composer.

-          Scarlatti sonatas are fun, not great. Ditto Couperin’s keyboard pieces.

-          More than five minutes of Purcell generally puts me in a diabetic coma.

-          Vivaldi was a much more interesting composer after being taken up by the period instrument crowd.

-          Bach is a much more boring composer after being taken up by the period instrument crowd.

-          Bach, Wagner, Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Glass are all half-great composers. Utter geniuses of musical organization and all capable of stultifying boredom.

-          Bach is the Aristotle of music. His music provides models to later composers of how to write music because nobody’s yet come up with better solution. But it’s only a matter of time before some musician does.

-          I listen not only to Bach but also to Telemann, Buxtehude, Froberger, and Pachebel, and wonder to myself how a society could put so little value on a sense of humor.

-          Handel is a very great composer of towering imagination. Nevertheless, anyone who performs him uncut deserves a restraining order.

-          Anyone who refuses to improvise in Handel deserves a restraining order.

-          Anyone who refuses to re-arrange Handel’s orchestration (to say nothing of pre-Handel music) should be given a restraining order.

-          Gluck wrote spectacular scenes, terrible operas.

-          Haydn, not Bach, is the foundation of all music that comes after him.

-          Mozart is exactly as great as everybody says. But his early works sound like they were written by an eight-year-old.

-          The opening movements of Mozart piano concertos can be really boring.

-          Mozart and Beethoven issued in a Golden Age of music that, whatever other glories music has, has ultimately never been bettered before or since.

-          On the whole, Beethoven is better when you follow the metronome marks.

-          Beethoven’s 9th is based on a really ghastly piece of poetry.

-          Beethoven’s late quartets are the most approachable music imaginable.

-          Rossini is delightful. But somebody needs to take a Battle Axe to William Tell.

-          I love Schubert, but that guy really needs to develop thicker skin.

-          I have no interest in either Bellini or Donizetti. Many would say the problem is me, not the music. I think they’re wrong.

-          Berlioz is awesome. But for all his literary pretensions, the pleasures of his music are almost completely vapid.

-          In the generation of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner, the greatest composer was Schumann.

-          Mendelssohn’s travel music is like the diary of a 20 year old who thinks the world is interested in his every thought (irony duly noted).

-          Chopin's music is exquisite in small doses. But there is no emotion in Chopin’s music that youporn would not take care of.

-          Schumann’s insanity made a greater composer of him than any other musician of his time.

-          There are three Liszts:  slam-bang virtuoso, old visionary, and intellectual/religious poseur. The first is awesome, the second is interesting, the third is unbearable.

-          I don’t understand the big deal about the Met’s new production of the Ring Cycle and how awful it is. Most Ring Cycles suck because the music isn’t all that well-composed to begin with.

-          The only Wagner opera I would listen to for pleasure is Die Meistersinger.

-          Verdi is a great composer, but there are full hours of his music which I’d rather spend at the bar than listen to.

-          There are four operas of Verdi that are riveting form beginning to end: Aida, Otello, Falstaff, and the Requiem.

-          Bruckner is awesome – even if his technique sucks.

-          The mass appeal of the Viennese Waltz is only explicable when you realize that it’s a German person’s idea of fun.

-          Brahms is amazing – it’s his performers that suck.

-          If I ever met Saint-Saens, I’d have to resist the urge to punch him in the face.

-          Whatever else Tchaikovsky was, he remained a manchild his whole life, and his greatest music is seen through the eyes of children.

-          Had Verdi and Wagner died early, it would not have been half the tragedy it was to lose Mussorgsky and especially Bizet so young.

-          In this era of giants, the most remarkable among them are Beethoven, Schumann, and (maybe) Mussorgsky.

-          After Mozart, the greatest of all opera composers is Leos Janacek.

-          Puccini, on the whole, wrote better operas than Verdi.

-          The giants of twentieth century composition are (in descending order) Shostakovich, Mahler, Janacek, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Ives, (Britten, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schnittke get honorable mentions). From Elgar and Debussy onward, all others are ultimately of second rank at best.

-          Mahler was a great composer through his whole composing life. But his early music really is better.

-          Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is an absolutely first-rate piece of music by any standard.

-          Strauss was as great a composer as he was awful a philosopher. I can’t escape the feeling that when he created his programs, he was completely joking.

-          Had Gershwin lived longer, and had Bernstein not taken the job at the New York Philharmonic, they would have become giants equal to the aforementioned half-dozen.

-          Sibelius is a wonderful composer, but his music would have been better if he got out of the house more often.

-          Carl Nielsen is a fine composer, but stop trying to make the Nielsen revival happen. It won’t.

-          Ravel is a better composer than Debussy.

-          Debussy, great as he can be, is ultimately where classical music went wrong.

-          It will be a sign of a better world when Ralph Vaughan Williams is better appreciated.

-          Alexander von Zemlinsky is absolutely not underrated. Neither is Busoni or Franz Schrecker or Franz Schmidt or Egon Wellesz or Walter Braunfels or Hans Gal or Ernst Toch or Berthold Goldschmidt. These are all purveyors of second-rate gigantischemusik. Just because a composer writes for a large forces does not give him large vision.

-          Ditto all the British symphonsts people keep trying to revive.

-          Stravinsky launched a career-long battle to kill his own talent – adapting new styles rather than express what he truly was. As a result, he can be nearly as boring as the Bach/Wagner/Messiaen axis – but unlike them, he was not a natural bore. He had to come by his boredom honestly.

-          Bartok wrote music as great as can be written by a man who clearly had Asperger’s.

-          Berg should have grown a pair and told Schoenberg to go f*ck himself.

-          The influence of Webern on music for the last sixty years tells us everything we need to know about the screwed up priorities of classical music today.

-          Ernest Bloch threw away a first-rate talent to write second-rate Jewish musical kitsch.

-          Prokofiev and Hindemith are tacky, synthetic composers who compensate for an utter lack of interest in humanity with excessively flashy technique.

-          Carmina Burana is sickening from first bar to last. It’s a piece of Nazi propaganda adopted as an anthem by the most upper class members of the flower-power generation and preserved in the public imagination by movie trailers.

-          Poulenc never wrote music quite as great as someone with his talents should have.

-          Aaron Copland wrote good music for about a dozen years, and wrote crap on either side of that line.

-          I don’t know how Aaron Copland developed his great period. There were at least half-a-dozen American contemporaries who were just as talented.

-          Aram Katchaturian is a scandalously underrated composer.

-          How screwed up is classical music in our era? The greatest composer of the last century is Shostakovich, a composer trapped inside a totalitarian regime.

-          Olivier Messiaen, like Bach and Wagner before him, writes beautiful music with a noxious whiff of bullshit about it. But compared to his followers, he was the personification of great music.

-          Elliott Carter has spent the better part of a century creating music that nobody will ever care about.
-          Conlon Nancarrow is interesting, but interesting is different than good.

-          Lutoslawski was a much more interesting composer in the 50’s. His turn to modernism was disastrous.

-          The only composers of the original Darmstadt generation worth listening to are Ligeti and Berio.

-          Ligeti is best when he’s pranking away. Berio is best when he’s cutting and pasting other people’s material.

-          Gyorgy Kurtag is better than either, including at their own games.

-          Xenakis is fun, but he probably didn’t intend his music to be fun.

-          I look forward to getting to know the Henze operas better. I still think I won’t like them much.

-          The rest of the Darmstadt school is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the musical public.

-          Boulez and Stockhausen are decent musicians who mastered the art of publicity far more than they ever did composition.   

-          Morton Feldman’s primary objective is to bore the audience.

-          Sofia Gubaidulina is a composer we all want to like, yet nobody seems to.

-          Alfred Schnittke is the only composer of the past fifty years who has nothing to fear in comparison to the giants of the past.

-          Rubber Soul is better than any classical composition of the last fifty years save late Shostakovich.

-          No amount of pot will make Terry Riley sound like a great composer.

-          Holy Minimalism is stupid.

-          Philip Glass is a truly gifted composer. He’s put that gift in the service of writing some of the most boring great music ever written (and a lot of the most boring bad music).

-          Steve Reich’s early music was dumb as hell. But he keeps getting better and better as he ages.

-          Calling Louis Andriessen the greatest living composer, as a surprising number of experts do, is akin to calling Elgar the greatest living composer a hundred years ago. It’s a perfect judgement for the fashions of today, and will seem utterly dumb in a mere ten years.

-          Even if he isn’t a giant on the level of Beethoven or Shostakovich, John Adams writes some fantastically great music.

-          No one would know who John Luther Adams was if he didn’t share John Adams’s name.

-          Kaija Saariaho may one day soon join the Bach/Wagner/Messiaen club as a great composer of less-than-great music.

James MacMillan is an authentically great composer. But even now that hes over 50, it remains to be seen if he's in the Schnittke class.

Thomas Ades is improving and becoming ever-more expressive, but for most of his career he didn't show much ability past musical irony.

Nico Muhly seems poised to become the Next Big Thing in American music, but his music pales just as Ades does next to his contemporaries in the non-classical world.

-          Osvaldo Golijov’s compositional block is an absolute tragedy for music.


  1. Bach and Wagner were "half-great" composers? Franz Schmidt was a mere purveyor of "Gigantischemusik"? Meanwhile, James MacMillan is "an authentically great composer", and Ades shows promise, if only he'll go easy on the irony.

    You've convinced me of one thing: you don't know what you're talking about!

  2. You've convinced me you're a scabrous little pig...