New Music and the Masterpiece Syndrome
by Steven Stucky
adapted from a Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program, November 1989
Most of us believe there is a repertoire of musical masterworks so perfect in technique and so profound in expression as to form the central, indispensable core of our musical culture. The Beethoven symphonies — all of them, no questions asked — are part of the canon; the Shostakovich symphonies are not. The Mozart piano concertos are in; the Saint Saens are out. Bach, yes; Telemann, no.
It is right to set ourselves high standards. It is right to venerate the Eroica Symphony and the B-Minor Mass. Such works are the spiritual legacy of great souls; it is right to make them touch-stones in our lives. Yet, valuable as it may be to acknowledge a canon of great works, we ought to question our allegiance to that canon on several counts. The masterpiece syndome makes it far too easy to dismiss the not quite first-rate. It is not difficult, for example, to demonstrate that Vivaldi, Dvorák, Sibelius, Puccini, Britten, or Copland does not measure up to Bach. Yet do we really want to live without the Dvorák Seventh, La Bohčme, Peter Grimes, or the Copland Piano Variations? (This point is especially close to the hearts of those of us who spend our professional lives hoping to be almost as good as, say, Massenet.)
The habitual nature of the masterpiece syndrome is likewise pernicious. If “everyone knows” that the Beethoven Third is a masterpiece, no one need rethink that question for himself; no one need listen to the work afresh, with open, critical ears. Soon enough we grow incapable of judging for ourselves.
Finally, the canon insulates us from the unknown. All of us, professional and lay listener alike, spend most of our time with pedigreed works already declared great. I have never heard it put quite so baldly as in one of those television ads for a record set of classical chestnuts, in which the announcer solemnly promised, without a hint of irony, that the records on offer contained “not a single unwanted, unfamiliar passage”! (I’m not making this up.) The greatest-hits mentality — whether in arts merchandising, concert programming, recording repertoire, or criticism — cheapens, coarsens, and dulls our musical senses.
For all these symptoms of the masterpiece syndrome, new music is the best medicine. In the face of the new, habits fail. We cannot appeal to received wisdom to help us sort the eloquent from the merely self-indulgent, the profound from the meretricious, the prophet from the charlatan. Nor can the professional critic (we soon realize) do the job for us; he is as likely as the next listener to be spectacularly wrong about a new piece. No, we are utterly, bracingly alone with our insecurities in the face of new music. Here, perhaps, we can recapture something of the delicious mixture of exhilaration and bewilderment listeners must have felt at the first performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique in 1830, or of Debussy’s Prélude a l'aprčs-midi d’un faune in 1894, or of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps in 1913, or of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in 1944.
Will any of the new works we hear during the current season be masterpieces? Will any of them be added to the canon? Mercifully, the questions are irrelevant. Our task is not to predict the habits of posterity but to respond to the here and now. Genuine composers will somehow make themselves understood. Their works are communiques addressed from human beings to other human beings. However surprising or alien their language, their humanness is sure to touch, to move, to enrich the open-eared listener.
© Steven Stucky