Monday, November 18, 2013

What Makes a Masterpiece?

A commentator on my recent post on Elliot Carter wrote the following:
You mentioning how lesser-known composers being more popular after their deaths makes me wonder: what make a composition, or for that matter, any work of art, a masterpiece, something that will stand the test of time and still be admired centuries after its creation? Why is Bach's music remembered and admired today than that of his contemporaries (i.e. Telemann)? Why is Mozart considered a musical genius while Salieri, who was much more popular than Mozart, was later forgotten?

It make be a tall order to ask of you, but could you shed some light for me on this subject?
Yes, a tall order, indeed. But a question very much worth answering. I first started thinking about this back in the 1990s when I read an article in a Toronto arts magazine proclaiming that the age of the masterpiece was over. This so annoyed me that I wrote a letter to the editor. They liked it so much that they asked me to write a whole article in reply. Alas, I no longer have the text of that, but I think my pondering of aesthetics pretty much dates from that time.

Whether or not there are currently musical masterpieces being written or not is irrelevant to the fact that there certainly were musical masterpieces written in the past. Even an up-to-date "new" musicologist like Susan McClary spends quite a bit of time talking about pieces that have long been considered masterpieces, such as quartets and symphonies by Beethoven.

What my commentator asks is an aesthetic question and it is characteristic of our time to hate aesthetic questions! As an age that worships science, we like scientific methods and hate philosophical ones. But science, of course, avoids value judgments and prefers statistical results. For this reason, all the brain scanners and all the neurological studies in the world cannot answer the question posed above. If you put 100 people in a brain scanner and prove that 99 of them love the music of Miley Cyrus, that still does not make it a masterpiece.

What does make something a masterpiece? I don't think there is a simple answer to the question because it is not answerable by generalities like "pieces written in C major are generally better than ones written in E flat major." In fact, the truth likely is in the details. Before I take up some of these details, I would like to refer you to a post I wrote on the general question of aesthetics in which I enlist the aid of the philosopher David Hume.

Speaking of philosophers, another one with whom I have less affinity is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel whose life almost exactly overlaps with Beethoven's. He did say something very relevant to our question though: "The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk." I was almost going to make that the title of this post. What he means by this is that wisdom comes at the end, after the fact. We probably cannot easily sort out who is the most significant pop musician of this decade because there are so many and we have no "distance" on them. The noise of events and of competing artists and of marketing, promotion and sales tends to make musical qualities harder to discern. But as the music recedes in time, it is as if a fog lifts and we start to see which mountains have been hiding in the mist. Would anyone deny that Bob Dylan is a great artist? When he was becoming known in the 1960s, there were many other artists that you might have preferred such as Donovan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkle, the Byrds, Neil Young, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and a host of others. They were all fighting for our attention and made a lot of fine music. Here are a couple of examples:

Joni Mitchell had such a beautiful voice and that is a fine song. Here is another:

Also a fine song, very well sung. On the other hand, this guy isn't much of a singer:

But it is starting to become clear that the real genius of this musical genre, folk-inspired pop music, was Bob Dylan. Maybe a hundred years from now our descendants will decide that the real genius of the era was Arlo Guthrie, but I doubt it. After fifty years the fog starts to lift. Now notice that I have not picked the obvious second-rate artists from the sixties like the band called It's a Beautiful Day and their hit "White Bird":

It makes the aesthetic point better to compare Dylan with the strongest artists of the time. We can see that it is not so much the technical execution or the "prettiness" of the melody or the sentiment of the words that makes for greater musical significance: it is rather the uniqueness of the work. Heck, even after all this time I'm still not sure what Dylan is saying in the words to "All Along the Watchtower". It isn't even grammatical. But it still interests me, which is the point. Dylan's music lasts because it is so unusual. But just being unusual is also no guarantee. After all, one of the weirdest folk bands of the 60s were the Incredible String Band and they are certainly not in Dylan's league:

So what is it that makes for a masterpiece? As I said, there is no simple answer and the reason for that is that the answer is different for every piece because one of the essential things about a musical masterpiece is that it is unique. Unique. One of a kind. There is only one "All Along the Watchtower" just as there is only one "Moonlight" Sonata and only one Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony.

A piece is not a masterpiece because it is complicated: the music of the Incredible String Band is more complicated than most Dylan songs, just not better. A musical masterpiece is a piece of music that captures in some fundamental and essential way something about music and ourselves. It speaks to us. Often the music that has the richest form and content does not speak to us immediately but needs decades or a century or more to reach us. In the fifty years after the death of Beethoven his greatest works, the late string quartets, were hardly played. Listeners were not quite ready for them yet. Today they are usually acknowledged as being some of the greatest music ever written:

What makes this a masterpiece? Again, no simple answer. It is uniquely what it is, to the point that it almost seems to have its own personality. One quality of great music is that it seems alive. Second-rate music seems perfunctory, formulaic. Another quality is that great music also seems inevitable. Even on first listening it seems exactly right, even when it is surprising. Another quality is that it seems to touch something fundamental in us. Not melodrama--the oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Weber is not great music--but something real. Great music does not try to punch our emotional buttons; it is not cheaply manipulative the way a Hollywood blockbuster is. But it does reach us with some sort of transcendent vision. Just exactly how it does that is unique to every piece of great music, which is why it is so hard to talk about!

Let's have a final example. The last piece of music that Mozart composed:


Anonymous said...

Wow, you wrote an article solely based on my question! I feel quite flattered. Anyways, I figured it was a tall order to ask you what defined a composition as a masterpiece, but your point on a piece being unique and "captures in some fundamental and essential way something about music and ourselves" is quite thought-provoking.

Thanks for tackling this question. It would be nice to see if other people would give their own answers to this question.

Shantanu said...

I don't know what defines a masterpiece but this was a superb article, great read from beginning to finish!

Nathan Shirley said...

The concept of "standing the test of time" has always been interesting to me. Nearly all art is created within a specific culture. Human cultures not only vary from place to place, but they also change over time, from generation to generation.

Most art/entertainment ages and dies along with its culture. So when we say art has stood the test of time, what we mean is that it is able to remain relevant after being stripped of the culture which produced it.

Great art transcends culture.

If you could define what makes something a masterpiece, then it wouldn't really be a masterpiece to begin with. The human mind is the most complex object in the known universe. The most elusive aspect of our brains has to do with emotional intelligence and creativity. Masterpieces are the pinnacle achievements of this part of the mind. Define what makes something a masterpiece?? Ha!

Bryan Townsend said...

This proved to be a very interesting question and thanks to the reader who posed it. Thanks also to Shantanu!

Nathan, thanks for noticing that I did NOT in fact define what a masterpiece is, except indirectly and by suggestion. You are quite right, we can't do it. We can just point to it.