Saturday, June 11, 2016

Perfect Pieces of Music

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal, "The Unimprovable Awards: Celebrating 6 Perfect Things" that does just what it says. What sorts of things are they celebrating? Rolex's waterproof watch case, the Aritsugu kitchen blade, Zalto hand-blown wine glasses, that sort of thing. This reminds me that we have some unimprovable pieces of music as well, pieces that so perfectly embody a particular aesthetic vision or a particular genre that no-one has ever surpassed them.

Let's have some examples. With Bach there are a host of possibilities. Consider the fugue: the competition is fierce, but it is all Bach competing with himself. This might be the perfect prelude and fugue, the C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier Bk 1:

But you could pick any number of other preludes and fugues, also by Bach. Then there are his concertos, cantatas, suites, sonatas and on and on. The truth is that most pieces by Bach are the most perfect examples of their form and genre. That's why he's number one!

So let us look at some other composers. There are several symphonies that each in their own way is an unimprovable masterpiece. Haydn offers us a lot of examples. How about the "Oxford" Symphony, so-called because it was played when he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford? Back in the 18th century this really was a very great honor, not like nowadays when they hand them out like grocery coupons.

Or the "Jupiter" Symphony by Mozart:

And if anyone could follow those two masters, it would be Beethoven whose Symphony No. 5 is another unimprovable masterpiece:

There are so many possibilities, out of the last thousand years of Western music, but let me just pick a few. The motet, Nuper rosarum flores, of Guillaume Dufay is its own kind of unique perfection, synthesizing the older isorhythmic style with the new style of Renaissance counterpoint. It was commissioned for the dedication of the Florence cathedral:

As for the concerto form, we have unimprovable examples in the Baroque Era from Vivaldi, such as this, the Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor RV522:

Then we have perfection in the Classical Era from Mozart such as this Piano Concerto no 24 in C minor, K 491:

And in the Romantic Era with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:

And the 20th century with the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

There, that should give you something to listen to over the weekend.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with some of your choices, especially Beethoven 5, a work I once never thought I could like because of its ubiquitous theme -- then I heard the fourth movement.

I don't much like the idea of anything being perfect though. Made me think of a wonderful line from Frasier (*quickly googles*):

Niles: It was an exquisite meal, marred only by the lack of even one outstanding cognac on their carte de digestif.
Frasier: Yes, but think of it this way, Niles: what is the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.

Bryan Townsend said...

Now that is the perfect comment!

Jeph said...

Beethoven- 7th symphony second movement
Tchai - Trepak and Arabian Dance from Nutcracker, 4th symphony third mvmt
Monteverdi - Cruda Amarilli from 5th book of Madrigals, Ah Dolente from 4th

Nothing very lengthy there. To be perfect, a piece must never test my patience, and succinctly convey a keenly felt emotion, sustained in form and harmony throughout. It must know exactly what it is. It's a word I apply to great pop songs much more than classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Excellent choices there. You bring out an interesting aspect: I was following the terms of the WSJ article and looking for pieces that were "unimproveable" which is a kind of perfection. But I think you are correct, it is a perfection within boundaries. A truly great piece of classical music will have an internal tension that will tend to spill over any boundaries. It will have an aesthetic unruliness that is part of being great. Think of the Bach Mass in B minor, or the St. Matthew Passion or the Mozart Requiem. These works are not "perfect", but they are great.