When I was a teenager—which is to say, in the early ‘60s—I got most of my information about music and audio from Stereo Review. What I remember now is that the music writers usually found a way to make their content engaging without dumbing it down. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they had some great writers. Nat Hentoff was one of the jazz critics. Hans Fantel helped cover the classical side. They both must have been fairly young at the time, but it’s funny: I’ll always think of Fantel as a distinguished older guy, and I’ll always think of Nat Hentoff as young. (Hentoff is now 86, and has gotten somewhat crotchety; Fantel died in 2006.)
Anyway. One of the more surprising things those writers did was to collaborate on an article in which each of them named the classical composer whose music was their least favorite. In my fifteen-year-old opinion, that was way cool, because it demolished the notion that Classical was some sort of religion, and that if you didn’t accept all the Rules and worship all the Prophets and Teachers in that religion, you would be banished from it and rightly so, dammit.
Not that these folks encouraged Philistinism. Far from it: if I recall, each critic took pains to describe how he had tried and tried, had approached this work or that one on bended knee, repeatedly, in the best tradition of Learning to Appreciate the Masters. And he still didn’t get it. Or else he did, and then reasonably concluded it was still a waste of time.
There were rules. You couldn’t name someone so obscure that the judgment of history had already taken them out of the Great Composer Olympics; your least-favorite had to be someone widely regarded as a contender. And each writer got to name only one personal non-starter, which certainly helped them focus.
I took heart from their efforts. These fine people, experts in their field, had given me permission to exercise personal taste in music. I went on to do so, and I have enjoyed enormous amounts of music since then, in nearly every genre you could name. (Okay, maybe not emo.) At the same time, I stumbled repeatedly over a few artists—including the classical composers named below—into whose music I just could not find a way. I’m going to share some of those names, my Bottom Five, with you today. Remember, this is my personal list. I’m not issuing it as a consumer alert, some sort of warning to innocent ears (“beware, here be dragons”). All I’m saying is, you may find my general experience useful or interesting in some way. Maybe it will give you permission.
To fill up this column, I decided to pick five composers, not just one. That made it harder. Now that I’m almost fully grown, I have discovered that even the geniuses who usually sent me packing also created music I couldn’t help but love. What follows is actually a list of my favorite works by my least favorite composers.
1. Anton Bruckner.
What, Bruckner? First of the Bottom Five? Gentle, innocent Bruckner? Visionary, beatific Bruckner? I’m sorry. If I were a better human being, it’s possible this saint of Late Romanticism would occupy a spot on my Top Five instead. But I have never been able to sit through one of his interminable symphonic works without wishing desperately—at least once or twice per movement—that I was elsewhere. And it’s not hard to put a finger on why. I personally prefer symphonic music that’s restless and dynamic. I want the music to set out on a quest, to encounter obstacles, and to arrive battered but safe. Or to arrive battered but still breathing. Or at least to arrive battered. Hence my love of Mahler, and Ives, and Beethoven—bless Beethoven most of all, because he made the rest possible: perhaps he didn’t invent musical battery, but he took it to the next level, as the young people say.
By and large, Bruckner’s symphonic music doesn’t do that. From the outset, it seems secure in its faith, largely at peace with the tonal world it inhabits. Oh, it does move. Slowly. With many outright repetitions of fairly simply thematic material, and lumbering sequences that gently—and often all too predictably—take us to a secondary theme or another tonal area. And then we take in the view from that new perspective. At length. And so on.
Nothing too much ever seems to happen. There are no big crises, no catastrophes. And for me, no catharsis.
I’ll tell you what I do like about Bruckner: his short motets. These are brief Catholic devotional works for mixed choir, sometimes with skeletal instrumental accompaniment, usually not. They possess all the spiritual peace of the symphonic works, but they don’t take all night to deliver the message. Listen to the opening of Bruckner’s Ave Maria:
That’s from a collection on Hyperion (CDA 67629) by Stephen Layton and his skillful choir, Polyphony. It includes six other motets and the lovely Mass in E Minor for double choir and winds. You should get it. After all, how often do you hear music this gorgeous? (Maybe this means Bruckner shouldn’t really hold a spot on my Bottom Five. Maybe this means that someday, someday I’ll even find a Bruckner symphony I can embrace. Like the Fourth…. Maybe.)
2. Franz Liszt
Whoa. Not Liszt. Isn’t he the favorite of music lovers everywhere? And certainly of pianists. For them, Liszt is practically a patron saint. Nevertheless I find myself at one with Clara Schumann, who left one encounter with Liszt muttering “Oh! What terrible composition! If a youngster were to write such stuff, one might forgive him, but what can one say when a full-grown man is so deluded?” The trouble was partly that he felt compelled to paint pictures, and to show off his astonishing technical skills, at the expense of working out the purely musical discourse. He also tended to “lavish excessive emotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such displays” (that from venerable historian Donald Jay Grout).
And yet. Ever since I heard Alfred Brendel play Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata in recital, I’ve had to admit I like at least one of his pieces. Mind you, this is the work that Eduard Hanslick called “a brazen concatenation of utterly disparate elements” and concluded that “anybody who has heard this thing and liked it is beyond hope.” Well, the elements are not that utterly disparate. And brazen concatenations can be a lot of fun. Brendel made a believer out of me. He has written a brief, lucid essay on the themes and form of the Sonata; it’s provided with his second recording (Philips 434 078-2) and in a collection of his writing, Alfred Brendel on Music. This helps considerably, because the Sonata contains a plethora of themes—as many as six by some reckonings. Sorting them into subgroups and even assigning them names (Faust, Gretchen, Mephistopheles), Brendel provides a very useful entrée for beginners, who may or may not buy totally into his Romantic analysis. I found that it put flesh on the bones of the music, while I was absorbing the many developments and transformations, none of which seem merely convenient or excessive!
Last year was a fine year for the Sonata; everybody and their dog recorded it (Westminster Kennel Club, take note). You can still get Brendel’s landmark recordings, also Martha Argerich’s famous take from the 60’s, now included with her “Debut Recital” on DG The Originals. Among the newer issues, I enjoyed Khatia Buniatishvili’s effort. (She is a real Lisztian in terms of self-promotion too; the packaging of her Sony CD abounds in extravagant emptiness.) But let’s sample the opening measures of Argerich’s performance, which is pretty hard to beat for sheer excitement:
And here’s some of the same material, refigured now as a fugato, astonishing both in its “Mozartian effortlessness” (Brendel) and in Argerich’s hell-for-leather ride through it:
Brendel is recorded better, I think, and he brings out some of the inner lines and complicated textures with more care. Once you get to know this piece, you will want his recordings and half a dozen others.
3. Arnold Schoenberg
Poor Schoenberg. He gets less and less respect these days, even though he founded an entire school of compositional thought, variously known as the 12-Tone Method, or Dodecaphonism, or Serial Technique. Having decided that the system of Western tonality, which had sustained musical expression among us for several hundred years, was hopelessly exhausted, Schoenberg invented a means of creating themes and “vertical structures” (chord-like non-chords) by treating all twelve notes of the chromatic scale as equal. He also made sure not to line up any notes that suggested a traditional melody or harmony. The result was music like this:
In spite of the music’s unattractive surface qualities (i.e., its sound), it gained some influential adherents, especially after World War II. As American academic composers discovered ways to apply Serialism to elements other than pitch (e.g., rhythm, register, timbre), the fashion for all things Dodecaphonic grew by leaps and bounds, at least in certain quarters.
In recent years Schoenberg and his followers have fallen out of fashion. Tonality is back; many composers pride themselves on making their music more “accessible.” I am glad about that, even though some of that “accessible” product strikes me as shallow in the extreme. I’ve come to admire more of Schoenberg’s music in the past few years. Several pieces now stick out for me, but in a good way.
The first time I visited Vienna, the Staatsoper was apparently running a special on Schoenberg. I got to hear—and just as importantly, see—two operatic masterpieces, Moses und Aron and Erwartung. The first is a sprawling epic that focuses on the troubled relationship between two brothers who led the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. Schoenberg wrote the libretto himself, and he turned this ancient story it into a messy but compelling rumination on the nature of leadership, personality, and destiny. It also makes for stunning theatre. If you ever get the chance to see a live production, you should not hesitate—grab your hat and go. There are some good recordings too; my personal favorite is Boulez’s 1996 traversal for Deutsche Grammophon (449 174-2). On DVD, I see that Daniele Gatti’s 2006 performance of the new Staatsoper production has been received favorably, although some people do not care for the staging (Arthaus Musik 101 259).
Whereas Moses und Aron has a cast of thousands (at least in Schoenberg’s fevered imagination), Erwartung is a relatively brief monodrama: one singer, alone on stage, wrestles with demons from her past and/or present. (I think.) There is a scenario, but the libretto by Marie Pappenheim (famously one of Freud’s earliest clients) is not meant to be taken literally; it paints a psychological portrait of a woman in deep distress. Many great sopranos have performed Erwartung. I have always admired Jessye Norman’s recording with Levine and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra; it’s now available as a twofer that throws in her priceless performance as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, for the price of a single CD (Philips 551 202). Berkshire Record Outlet also has a limited-edition DVD available; the visual element is important in this work, and the price is definitely right. Here’s a snippet from Norman’s CD.
(A woman wanders, alone, through a dark wood.) Is this still the path? What’s that? Let go! Is [my hand] caught? … No, something’s crawling. And here, too. Who’s touching me? Get away… It was so quiet behind the garden wall … no shouting or movement … and the town in pale mist … And the sky so immensely deep above the path you always take to me …still more transparent and distant … the colors of evening.
If you’re still not convinced that Schoenberg has anything to offer, you can move backwards in time, to his earliest works. Schoenberg began as an earnest Late Romantic, a Wagnerite even, and pieces like Verklärte Nacht and the mammoth Gurrelieder reflect that. I like those works too, but lately I’ve been more drawn to transitional masterpieces like the Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9, in which Schoenberg really tried to do new things with old ingredients. Here he combined small-group intimacy with Beethovenian narrative scope. He wanted grandeur in the German tradition, but he also wanted new sounds (listen to the new chords, built on fourths, in the slow prelude) and quicksilver textural changes.
That’s taken from Peter Eötvos’s classic recording of the Kammersymphonie with the Ensemble Modern (RCA Red Seal 090266117-2). It includes Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, another landmark work and one I’ve never really liked. But you might.
4. The entire 14th century
How can anyone nominate an entire century for their worst-ever list? That hardly seems fair. But trust me, it is. The 14th century was infamous for its combination of war, pestilence, corruption, and insipid, artificial musical craft. You had your repeated crop failures and famines, your Hundred Years’ War between France and England, your bubonic plague, your Papal Schism. Not a great time to be a human, let alone a musician.
Music theory was dominated by a set of practices that came to be known as the ars nova. They allowed for greater rhythmic flexibility, but also for organizational principles like the isorhythmic tenor, a means of parceling out the notes to a foundational chant fragment according to an abstract rhythmic formula. Doesn’t really matter—you weren’t supposed to hear the chant or the formula anyway. Here’s a sample from the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical work that apparently did the job that Jon Stewart and his crew do today, skewering various high-ranking church and state officials:
Was there nothing more substantial than that going on? As a matter of fact, there was. The one indisputable masterpiece of the era may also have been the first of its kind: a polyphonic setting of the complete Mass Ordinary, stylistically consistent if not remarkably unified, by a single composer. This is the Messe de Nostre Dame (“Mass of Our Lady”) by Guillaume de Machaut. It set the standard for numerous generations of Mass Ordinaries to come, and even by itself is a remarkable work. Here is a portion of the Kyrie:
Yes, it has isorhythmic tenors. Yes, the polyphony doesn’t have the regularized imitative qualities of the High Renaissance greats. Yes, it sounds weird at times; the hockets (hiccup-like interruptions of melodic lines) can disconcert newcomers to this style. Still, there’s something deeply spiritual and musical about this work when it’s done well. Several good recordings are available. Two of the best are by the Hilliard Ensemble (Hyperion CDA 66358) and Jeremy Summerly’s Oxford Camerata (Naxos 8.553833). Or you may still be able to find an exceptional recorded document by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, originally released as Cantus 9624, that includes the Gregorian Propers for a complete celebration of the Mass.
5. Robert Schumann
This is really the diciest selection I’ve made. Some of Schumann’s works rank with the greatest music ever written in the Western art canon. His song cycle Dichterliebe is incomparably beautiful and moving. Some of the short character pieces for piano are as good as it gets in that genre. So why have I reluctantly included Schumann in my Bottom Five?
Because when he’s good, he’s very good. But when he’s bad, it’s also plain as day. Schumann can be guilty, for example, of rhythmic torpor: often he fastens on a rhythm and just runs it into the ground, repeating the figure endlessly, albeit with enormous enthusiasm. The same thing with harmonic patterns and other repeatable elements. Sometimes this comes across as Romantic ardor, and sometimes it just seems bombastic.
Schumann was also burdened with lifelong weaknesses as an orchestrator and “voicer” of instruments, which he never quite overcame. The sad stories about where and why he changed orchestral doublings in his symphonies tend to validate one’s sense that his personality, with all its humanity, quirks, and disconnects, influenced his art in ways that turned increasingly bizarre as time went on. Listen to the way the piano dominates the sound spectrum in Schumann’s celebrated Quintet for Piano and Strings, op. 44:
Wonderful music, no? Now imagine how much better it would have been if the composer had reduced the piano’s role here and there, or had adjusted its accompanimental registration so that, whenever it plays a supporting role, with secondary figuration of some kind, your ear isn’t drawn to that figuration first, anyway. This may seem like an overly subtle objection. Believe me, as the quintet goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s essentially a piano work with string quartet obbligato. The performers have to be aware of this weakness and compensate for it wherever possible. In fact, that’s kind of a general rule for Schumann interpretation. Give the score as much of your own musicality as you can, and you’ll deliver a much more rewarding performance. I don’t mean to trot out a truism about Romantic interpretation here; I mean that Schumann often needs extra extra help.
A couple of months ago I received a new recording of a Schumann work that doesn’t get many performances: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, WoO 3. That WoO means Schumann never got around to assigning an opus number to it. He never actually finished it, and it was not given a public performance until after his death. I think this piece more or less makes my point. There are a lot of great moments in it: the Scene in the Cathedral, in which Mephistopheles confronts Gretchen with her sinful thoughts and deeds (the chorus bashes out a “Dies Irae” as counterpoint); the Midnight Scene in Part II, with its ghastly flute sounds and skittering strings as Want, Guilt, Care, and Need attempt to press a moral lesson upon Faust; the transcendant final pages, in which Goethe’s immortal “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” is draped in music no less fitting than that which Mahler would employ, years later, in his Eighth Symphony.
But it comes as no surprise to discover a few places where Schumann’s lifelong habits let him down: the Overture sounds as muddy and monochromatic as many parts of his symphonies; the pastoral philosophizing of the Sunrise movement goes on too long to sustain interest.
The performance was consistently good, though. This was one of the new Naxos Blu-Rays (NBD0015), with dependably terrific Antoni Wit leading his Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra plus a boatload of fine solo singers. The two sopranos (Iwona Hossa and Christiane Libor) stood out by virtue of their full, free sounds, while the Faust (tenor Jaakko Kortekangas) and Mephistopheles (bass Andrew Gangestad) more than held up their own side with incisive characterizations. Mr. Wit paced the music well, never forcing a tempo but never dawdling. Schumann demands energy, and these folks delivered it in bucketfuls. The conductor and the Naxos engineers also helped bring out those Central European wind colors that the Polish produce with such apparent ease. Listen, for instance, to the penultimate number, in which Doctor Marianus and the other angels and sages sing rapturous apostrophes to the Queen of Heaven:
This recording almost converted me—again—into a true Schumann fan. If I encounter too many more neglected Schumann works played this well, I may have to scrub old Robert from my Bottom Five for good. That would be a pleasure.