Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Overrated Canon

There was just an article in Slate where they asked a number of literary figures which "great works" they thought were the most overrated. Nice exercise. I wonder if we could do the same with music? I think I would put high on the list these works:

  • Vivaldi, The Four Seasons --maybe it is just over-exposure, but I really can't listen to it any more
  • Mahler, Symphonies --endless, narcissistic and neurotic
  • Handel, just about any of his sets of variations. And I have never been able to listen to the Messiah without falling asleep. The story goes one hoary old orchestral musician says to the other, "you know, last night I dreamed I was playing the Messiah and I woke up and, by God, I was!"
  • Recuerdos de la Alhambra --perhaps it's just me, but I can't stand to hear this piece, or pretty much any tremolo piece, any more
  • Dvořák, Humoresque --no, sorry, it is just too hokey
  • And finally, Beethoven, Für Elise--though probably not the worst piece from his pen, certainly one of his weaker moments...


Anonymous said...

Two quick comments.

I agree with the Vivaldi: it's a good piece but one that decays with overexposure: same is true of much of rock music by the way. So many rock tunes I used to love to death and now that I look back I wonder what all the fuss was about. Bach is the opposite: a lifetime of listening to his music keeps telling me it's even greater than I thought.

To be provocative, I'll say the two single most overrated pieces are the Ode to Joy and the Toccata in Dm. Both are fine pieces but not up to the stratospheric standards of their authors. Actually the toccata is so un-Bachian I doubt he had much to do with it. Or if he composed it, I read somewhere, it was as a device to test the sonorities of new organs.

I have another question I hope you'll address. Why is it that so often the most popular pieces by a composer are far from his best. Beethoven's 7th towers over the 5th, but popular contests suggest otherwise. Most of Bach's "best of" will have the toccata but not the passacaglia, which is infinitely better.

PS: Re. Fuer Elise, should one make exceptions about instructional materials? Well, of course, the well-tempered clavier was just that: instructional stuff. Yet it ranks alongside Beethoven's sonatas as holy scripture for pianists.

Bryan Townsend said...

I haven't listened to the Toccata and Fugue in D minor for a while so I just had a listen. Yep, that could be, if not his weakest piece, then certainly the crudest. Flashy arpeggios and scales. Maybe he wrote it to show off the organ, or test the organ. Remember he often was hired, at a considerable fee, to test out newly-built organs.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony, on the other hand, is an extraordinary piece--but also controversial because of the entry of the voice into the last movement. Over-exposure and bad arrangements aside, that remains--in my view--a very great piece! But you need to listen to it as a whole work, all four movements.

I was expecting some push-back on my putting all of Mahler's symphonies in the over-rated category!!

I think that for the inexperienced or very occasional listener certain pieces, because of their obviousness are immediately enjoyed, while to other, more experienced listeners, they are too unsubtle: the Dvorak Humoresque, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Fur Elise all probably fall in this category.

Anonymous said...

Agreed about the 9th: a tremendous achievement. It's just the famous ditty that is a subpar melody with a Turkish march that simply doesn't work. Ironic that it's the official anthem of the EU, given that it was played at every one of Hitler's bdays...

Re. Mahler, I smiled thinking of that British music critic (whose name escapes me) who just published a huge biography calling him the greatest symphonist ever, no less.(Kind of bores me, to be frank.)

One thing about Bach I particularly love is that his music has no "attitude" (which is why the toccata is so atypical). It's the least adolescent music there is. Pretty much the polar opposite of hormone-driven rock 'n roll. I call it music for children and older people. (In my book, that's a compliment.)

Bryan Townsend said...

I think the author of the Mahler biography is Norman Lebrecht.

I'm a big fan of the Sibelius symphonies and the Shostakovich symphonies, but just can't listen to Mahler these days...

It is pretty hard to find someone who doesn't love Bach--amazing accomplishment for an obscure Saxon church organist dead for 261 years!