Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Seven Most Over-rated Composers

I am preparing a post on the endings of Sibelius symphonies, but in the meantime, here is something else to get your blood boiling. I don't mean to offend with this list, but I think that with all the puff pieces out there, there is room, now and then, for some negative comments.

I could also have called this the list of the most unfortunately influential composers: composers who cast a malevolent shadow over music history, composers like:

  1. Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
  2. Charles Ives (1874 - 1954)
  3. Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
  4. Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
  5. Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
  6. Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 - 2007)
  7. John Cage (1912 - 1992)
What these composers share is a narcissistic disregard for their audience and an egoistic arrogance. Their music is often bullying and annoying, barking at the listener rather than charming him. They wrote long pieces often because they simply wanted to spend more time bullying the listener. Some of them were more superficially charming than others (like John Cage), but even with him, you are going to be trapped in a room far longer than you want to be, listening to music that assaults the listener with extreme unpleasantness.

If I have included someone that is a personal favorite, then I'm sorry, but it was going to happen sooner or later.

If I have left out someone that you feel should have been included, I apologize even more! Please let me know in the comments.

I will, out of mercy, just put up a couple of samples for you: Wagner, the Prelude to Act one of Die Meistersinger.

That's just nasty, from beginning to end, isn't it?

So what was it that got me to see that not all famous composers are good composers? What was it that caused the scales to fall from my eyes? Oddly enough, it was a book by Kingsley Amis about a music critic. You can read my post on Kingsley Amis here. I particularly loved this passage:
At first against my will, I listened to Mahler's enormous talentlessness being rendered by Roy and the N.L.S.O. As they went on, flecks of seeming talent began to insinuate themselves. Factitious fuss turned itself into a sort of gaiety; doodles in the horns and woodwind were almost transformed into rustic charm; blaring and banging acquired a note of near-menace; even that terrible little cuckoo-motif reflected something more than the great man's decision to let the world know how jolly preoccupied he had been in those days with the interval of the perfect fourth.
I don't know that anyone has better captured the inanity of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. Here, have a listen for yourself:

The composer in the above list that I expect to get the most pushback on is Brahms. He did write some pretty good stuff. I've always liked the ballades and the Haydn Variations. But for me he is an instance of TTH: trying too hard! Tom Service does his level best this week to convince us that Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is a great piece of music. But I think he is trying too hard as well. There is just a kind of interminable dreariness to Brahms...


Craig said...

Alright, Bryan, I'll take the bait. I liked your list of underrated composers -- it was especially nice to see Weinberg on the list! -- but this list of overrated composers is too much.

I used to think that Mahler was bloated and overripe, but for the past ten years or so I have been almost totally in thrall to him - always excepting the repellent 8th symphony. I simply can't bear to hear you say such nasty things about him. I must have at least 20 recordings of the "Resurrection" symphony...

Also, putting Brahms on the list must be a very tendentious move. What about his German Requiem and his Alto Rhapsody? The quality of his writing for voices is underrated, in my opinion. He has those lovely late piano works, and those violin sonatas, and his music for clarinet...

My own list of the most overrated composers would be something like this:

1. Richard Wagner
2. Franz Liszt
3. Hector Berlioz
4. Arnold Schoenberg
5. Maurice Ravel
6. Richard Strauss
7. Antonio Vivaldi

Shall we meet in the alley out back and settle this?

Bryan Townsend said...

It's a tough job, I know, sticking your neck out like this, but somebody's got to do it! So I thank you, Craig, for joining me with your own list. Much appreciated!

What is interesting is that two composers appear on both our lists: Wagner and Liszt. Interesting that you put Berlioz on your over-rated list while I put him on my under-rated list. I think I would agree with you regarding Ravel, Richard Strauss and Vivaldi as well. Schoenberg we would have to have a looonnnggg talk about.

Brahms, yes, you have some points there and I did realize that he would be controversial.

So there is really only one composer that we are completely at odds about: Mahler. Could I suggest conductor's batons at ten paces?

Craig said...

You're on.

Schoenberg seems a better candidate to me than Stockhausen because ... well, does anybody really think Stockhausen is a good composer?

There seems to be no shortage of overrated composers!

I have never really understood the high regard in which some hold Berlioz. The Symphonie Fantastique is nice enough, but not enough to found a great reputation on. He's got some other fairly non-descript orchestral music (Harold in Italy) and what else? A year or two ago I heard Les Troyens, and I admit that really soured me on him.

Bridge said...

Craig, I graciously accept your offer seeing as Ravel is a personal hero of mine, as is Schoenberg. Vivaldi I think writes fun music, I don't necessarily worship him but he puts a smile on my face. Also, he was good enough for Bach to call him a master - if that doesn't count for something what does?

But seriously, Ravel. Have you even heard the Pavane for a Dead Princess? Spanish Rhapsody? Tombeau de Couperin? Daphnis and Chloe? The Violin Sonata in G? Concerto for the Left Hand? Ma Mere L'Oye? Valses Nobles et Sentimentales? The string quartet? Hell, even Bolero which is perhaps among his most vacuous works is great. Talk to me after you have listened to these works - at the very least the Pavane. There is no way you will still contend that he is overrated, even if his music doesn't necessarily appeal to you. It is worth listening to just for the orchestrations, some of the finest to date.

And yes, I also disagree on Brahms. In fact, he is probably the most unassuming of the early romantic composers. His music much lighter and more classical and in my opinion unpretentious. His 4th symphony is especially great, one of my personal favorites. I'm not much of a Brahms scholar though I am looking to expand my collection soon, however I also like the Clarinet quintet and Horn trio a lot. At the very least I would disagree that he is among the most overrated composers in history.

Again, I disagree somewhat strongly on Mahler. His music is not as disgusting as you describe it. In fact the first movement of the first which you linked I enjoy quite a lot - not really what I would call inane personally. His music is obviously grandiose but I just don't see what's so ugly about it. I find it to be perhaps a bit too heavy at times, but great music when the mood calls for it. Very impressive orchestration, in my opinion.

I haven't gotten into Berlioz yet though the Symphony Fantastique which is almost literally the only piece of his I've heard is not bad in my opinion. Can't say I know it too well but I listened to it once superficially and had a good time.

I don't know Richard Strauss that well either, but from what I've heard of the Symphonia Domestica I would also disagree with the contention that he has no merits as a composer.

You may have Stockhausen and Cage though.

Honestly, to me it sounds like you just dislike Romanticism because these composers literally define it. If that is indeed the case, I find it unfair to label them overrated because a lot of people do like Romanticism and celebrate these composers.

Bridge said...

Same thing goes for Schoenberg. It makes no sense to say that arguably the best serialist is overrated just because you dislike serialism. In fact, Schoenberg is already pretty underrated by virtue of the fact that people who don't like serialism hate him, which is nearly everybody. Do you really think people like Ferneyhough are better composers than him? What exactly are you basing your opinion on anyway? The aesthetic appeal of his music or how well it is written? His skills as a composer are very formidable and I don't think anybody really claims otherwise so it must be aesthetic appeal, and probably you are comparing him to composers of tonal idioms, correct? As regards the latter, it is apples and oranges. Totally futile comparison as I personally don't believe in absolutes.

Bridge said...

Slightly misleading to use the term "aesthetic appeal" because it implies that aesthetics are somehow divorcible from composition. That's not what I meant though, I'm not really talking about "absolute aesthetics" if there is such a thing, but I mean the aesthetic preferences of the listener.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are romantic composers I like: Berlioz for example, Schubert, the songs and piano music of Schumann, Dvorak, some others.

Like I said, Schoenberg is a very special case. He did so many fascinating things even before serialism, such as Pierrot Lunaire, that I think any kind of evaluation of his work would be very lengthy and complex.

But didn't this provoke an interesting discussion! Which was the whole idea...

Bridge said...

Not to mention his works in a late-Romantic idiom like Verlkärte Nacht, the first quartet or the Chamber Symphony. But I was only referring to his serialist works because that's what he is most often associated with. I mean, when people call him overrated one can only assume they are referring to that.

Anonymous said...

I can't really believe that you are serious about Brahms; to me - and to a large number of other music lovers as well as professionals - he is among the greatest composers without a shadow of doubt. Even if his music doesn't touch you at all - which I have a hard time to believe, just listen to the irresistible lyricism and melodic invention of the first sextet op. 18 for example - you should respect his undeniable skill as a composer. He created a rich harmonic language of his own mixing the modality of early music with the chromaticism of the 19th century (listen to "O Heiland Reiss die Himmel auf" op. 74 no. 2); his complicated contrapuntal writing is known for a reason (e.g. the last movement of the first cello sonata); the quasi-beethovenien architecture in his works is worthy of respect (e.g. he keeps the 5 mesure phrases for the first 60 mesures of the final piece of op. 119 which is ironically called a rhapsodie..) His quasi-modernist late piano cycles, especially opp. 118 and 119 (do a harmonic analysis of the first intermezzo in b minor op. 119, it's quite revealing!) are simply sublime! "interminable dreariness" ?! You obviously haven't listened through properly to the first symphony - the end is anything but dull or depressing.
Ok, I admit I might be somewhat biased, Brahms being one of my personal favourites but still..

By the way, I completely agree with Bridge regarding Ravel; he suggestions are well worth listening to!

I sincerely hope that you made these rather outrageous claims merely to provoke an interesting discussion..

Craig said...

Lively conversation!

My picking on Schoenberg doesn't really have to do with serialism per se; although it is true that I generally consider it a blind alley, it's not intrinsically bad: I count Webern among my favourite composers, for instance. And I am not even saying that Schoenberg is a bad composer, just that he is overrated. Is there another 20th century composer who looms larger in the standard histories? Do his achievements really warrant that attention? I say not.

As for Ravel, well, de gustibus non est disputandum. Most of the pieces you mention leave me somewhere between cold and lukewarm. Maybe it is just that he suffers in my mind in comparison with Debussy. I pair his piano concerto with Grieg's as the least attractive in the standard repertoire. I'll give you Daphnis et Chloe though; that is a truly beautiful piece of music.

It's easy to criticize, but not actually very enjoyable. Maybe I should skip over to the comments on the most underrated composers.

Rickard Dahl said...

Wow, quite a heated discussion. I count Vivaldi among my favorite composers, I don't know why you dislike him. Ravel doesn't deserve to be on this list either. As for Schoenberg and Webern: I think Webern is a better choice for this list. His music is very tasteless. Schoenberg on the other hand was at least trying to compose something interesting (and he succeded) using his atonal techniques, not to mention he respected previous composers. Webern was not only a bad composer but a bad influence on other composers. There's a reason the serialists (at least in Europe) celebrated that Schoenberg is dead (Schoeberg was probably considered too romantic and not dry enough unlike Webern). As for Mahler it's tricky. I've listened to several of his symphonies and also his "Das Lied von der Erde" and I didn't find the music to be so interesting for the most part. Ironically I find his first symphony to be a nice work (you linked it as an example of bad music...). Karlheinz and Cage: Yeah, I don't really care much about them, if you think they are overrated they probably are. Wagner and Brahms are quite tricky. I'm not familiar enough with their music to judge but I enjoy some of their music. However, I think Bruckner wrote more interesting music than Mahler, Brahms and Wagner in many cases. As for Strauss, not too familiar with his works so I don't really know, but based on what I've heard it's interesting. Liszt: Well, he was a virtuoso showing off so if you look it from a purely aesthetic standpoint rather than piano skill standpoint it might happen to be a bit overrated. As for Ives, I neither agree or disagree. Maybe I would make my own list but I don't like to diss composers. Maybe Pachelbel would be good to put on this list. Or I guess it's more of a case of one hit wonder (i.e. Canon in D with that overused chord progression I'm allergic to thanks to Pachelbel and countless pop artists).

Maybe you can make lists with top 7 underrated and top 7 overrated pieces.

Bryan Townsend said...

I knew that this post would provoke some discussion! And I'm delighted that the discussion has been so philosophical and that people have been marshaling evidence for and against this or that composer. I think it is a very good thing to take a run at a composer and ask yourself, is his music good or not? It is the process of questioning that is valuable.

Mr. Anonymous, there are times when I can appreciate the beauties of Brahms. As a matter of fact, I used to play in a guitar duo and one of our favorite pieces was John William's transcription of a movement from the Sextet you mention. But at the same time, there are aspects of Brahms that I find tiresome. His very motivic saturation is an example. I find that in the later 19th century music, and culture in general, became bloated and pompous and one of the places this is reflected in is the rhythmic texture of the music. Everything became very ponderous and the rhythms became stiff and plodding. It is a delight to go back and listen to the sparkle and grace of the music of Haydn and Mozart, very largely because of the rhythms.

On my side, I could cite the opinion of Benjamin Britten. I read somewhere that he used to play through all the piano music of Brahms once a year just to remind himself how bad it was. And the Guardian a few years ago had an article on Britten's diaries in which they mention his views on other musicians and composers. Here is a quote:

"Some of the most entertaining material in the diaries is Britten's unguarded opinions of other musicians. Conductors Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood are repeatedly written off. Boult is, by turns "slow, dull & ignorant", "listless" and even "suetlike"; Wood is called "an absolute vandal".

Britten never wastes an opportunity to express his disgust for Brahms. The latter's First Symphony is "ugly and pretentious"; his Second, "dull, ugly, gauch" [sic]; his Trio in A Minor, "foul – I can scarcely bear to play it."

He reserves particular bile for British composers – excepting his beloved teacher, Frank Bridge. Of Elgar, he writes plaintively, "How I wish I could like this music." Ralph Vaughan Williams "repulses me".

However, his adoration of Mozart is always clear (he calls The Magic Flute "one of the heavenliest works ever") and he loves Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Berg and Schönberg. He also admires Shostakovich, who became a close friend."

But, as you can see, he loved Wagner and Mahler...

Anonymous said...

I wonder how it is possible to decide objectively whether a certain music is good or not. It's all very interesting to read other readers' opinions, preferences, likes and dislikes about various composers, but these, by definition, are inherently subjective and as such they differ and clash to various degrees. It would be worthwhile to try and find a satisfying answer to this. Although with today's popular notion that everything is relative, I wonder how it is possible to decide the criteria defining good music that would satisfy everyone. I'm not sure if you have already written on this before or not. Until then, everyone can keep writing their own personal lists...

Thanks for pointing it out, I wasn't aware of John Williams' transcription, I only knew the solo piano version of the variation movement beside the original of the sextet.

By the way, Britten's quoted opinion doesn't convince me as I have always been suspicious of a composer's (however great) opinion of a fellow composer. It seems to me that active composers often lack the necessary distance needed for a decent judgement of a work of art.

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, you have hit on one of the leitmotifs of this blog: the possibility of aesthetic judgement. There is an aspect of subjectivity in aesthetics, of course, but also an aspect of objectivity as well. I would never put up a post saying that Bach, or Beethoven, or Haydn, or Mozart were overrated or wrote bad music. We have a kind of objective agreement about these composers. What is that based on? And why is it that some other composers, such as Wagner, Mahler and, yes, even Brahms, provoke genuine disagreement?

You can say that composers in general are not good judges of other composers, but in some ways they are very good judges indeed. Just look who they steal from! They are certainly not neutral, but they can be objective. Find me a composer that says Bach was not a good composer.

What your likes and dislikes are is less interesting to me than what they are based on. My posts about over and under-rated composers were really a forum for others to express their thoughts. And the most interesting ones are the ones that start with "I like (or dislike) the music of XXX because..."

I usually try to give some reason or another for my judgements. That way we at least know what we are disagreeing about.

There is a fine recording of that variation movement from the Brahms Sextet by Bream and Williams:

Bridge said...

@Rickard: Webern's music isn't listless. He's not my favorite composer but he is unarguably one of the masters of serialism. Check out his five movements & six bagatelles for string quartet op. 5 and 9 (the latter is very short,) the Passacaglia op. 1, the Symphony op. 21, the string quartet and the six pieces for large orchestra and five pieces for orchestra op. 6 and op. 10. All pretty interesting works, unfortunately I don't know anything else, perhaps Craig can recommend some more. It's all great music, well worth checking out.

@Craig: That's interesting because the exact opposite is true for me, I find Debussy to pale a little in comparison to Ravel. I don't really think such a comparison is necessary anyway, despite their music being so similar. I don't think Debussy is overrated because I think Ravel did it slightly better. He is great, as is Ravel. But strokes/folks, eh?

@Anonymous: There isn't really such a thing as objectivity in art, but there are certain absolutes which convention dictates that can be referred to. For example, "bad" orchestration is something quantifiable. If the parts are unidiomatic, the score is imbalanced with muddy textures, it's textbook and uninteresting, or whatever may be the case, one can say with absolute certainty that the orchestration has a certain effect that is generally considered unappealing in some way. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is absolutely bad and that is where subjectivity comes into play. For example, voice crossing is considered a cardinal sin in choral writing even though there are many such events in the works of one of history's foremost choral writers - J.S.B. Another example is that typical string orchestration dictates that the lowest pitched instruments be assigned to the bass part and the highest pitched to the topmost voice, because it leads to the most balanced sound. Yet, there are many exciting examples of the viola or even the violins playing the bass part. This is unarguably very unstable orchestration and is certainly unconventional, but when this is done well it doesn't matter. If you don't like it personally that's all well and good, but it isn't really possible to call it absolutely bad. If the composer had a good reason for choosing to break the rules one must respect that I think. Again, it just comes down to preference whether or not you think the result is good. One can analyze ad nauseum but people tend to forget that analysis is intended to be instruction first and foremost and not critique. Of course, it's perfectly valid to provide supportive evidence for your opinions through analysis, but the main function of analysis is not to serve as an objective means to assess art, something far too many seem to not understand.

Shantanu said...

Superb post, but it was too short!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Shantanu! It was mainly to spark discussion, which it certainly seems to have done. What would you like to have added?

@Bridge: you raise some issues regarding the relationship between analysis and aesthetic judgement that I think will inspire a new post. Thanks!

Shantanu said...

I would like you to go on some more about why you dislike these composers - it would be interesting, but might inspire more (critical) reaction from the readers.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think Nathan commented in another thread that composers must learn to hate. If I understand him correctly, it is that composers have a rather special relationship with music and they are usually both strong in their likes and dislikes and sometimes vocal in expressing them. A performer needs to fall in love with everything he plays, but a composer needs to protect his musical vision. A composer simply cannot afford to be neutral. He must have opinions. There is music that he hungrily seeks out (possibly to steal ideas!) and there is music he reviles and avoids. This is why I dislike some composers. In the 18th century, composers may have had a more collegial relationship, but for the last hundred or two hundred years, they have not been so gracious to one another. Schoenberg and Stravinsky detested one another.

So when you read something like the post above, just bear in mind that I am a composer.

Shantanu said...

Yes, I agree completely! I was trying to say that I enjoyed your critical judgements about these "over-rated" composers, and it would have been good fun (and illuminating) to read more. Perhaps in a later post sometime. :)

Bryan Townsend said...

In terms of spirited reaction, this was a very successful post, so I will certainly do more like it. Not for a little while, though!

Vlad Goetzelman said...

You could put.Wagner into #1 and #2 position if you are able to read the Lyrics of
Tristan und Isolde in the original pseudo- Mittelhochdeutsch of Wagner (which I'm able to)
Pure drivel in ryming couplets format.Even the english translation of the Libretto is
more poetic than the Deutsch.So the list should read:

Most overrated:
!.Wagner for Composition
2.Wagner for Lyrics

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for weighing in at this late date, Vlad, and welcome to the Music Salon.

Andy Bowker said...

Ravel is awesome! Still possibly my favourite composer although the likes of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Prokofiev and Stravinsky run very close. I love Debussy also. And Richard Strauss on the list .. not a chance, fantastic composer! I agree with you about Mahler and Brahms - the latter, I guess I see why some people love his music, but it doesn't quite do it for me. Mahler, I tried to get into his music but it doesn't float my boat. The Symphony of a Thousand sounded so awful to me, I had to switch it off. Don't know Liszt well enough to make a proper judgement.

Ilja said...

Whether Ravel is "awesome" or not has little bearing on his music being under- or overrated. As usual, this is not a discussion of overrated vs. underrated composers, but one about preference. Brahms is an objectively overrated composer - how could he not be, when he totally dominates the chamber music genre and his orchestral works are played every year by every orchestra? That doesn't say anything about the value of his music per se, just about its exposure. Conversely, Franz Bölsche is underrated, simply because his music isn't being played at all and he can't possibly have been that bad. Whether someone is over- or underrated cannot be reduced merely to matters of taste.

jorgeh said...

Hello, a composer here. I think a distinction should be made between the craftsmanship of the composer and the content of the music. Personally, I don't believe any of the composers from the list had sloppy craftsmanship, that is why they could make sense out of musical ideas through their understanding of sound, medium and perception. The content is another matter, i'm not talking about style but ratter about the general idea behind their music, what it ultimately represents, which is not possible to pin down objectively, but resonates (or not) in the listener. Personally i dislike Brahms but I recognize his virtues as a composer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comment Jorgeh. Composers always seem to have an interesting take on it. I like that distinction between craftsmanship and content. There are composers who disdain craftsmanship (John Cage, for example), what would you say about them? Also, there are composers who seem to have lots of craftsmanship, such as Hindemith, but who seem to write rather dreary music despite it.

Are you sure that the content of the music is always only subjective? Yes, I know that instrumental music has no specific semantic content, but still we seem to agree on what the general content is of a lot of it.

I wrote this post hoping to get some interesting comments such as yours. Thanks again!