News Flash: Great Music is Hard to Write

This Anna Magdalena Bach “controversy” is nothing new. What is a little unusual is the confusion in at least some minds regarding pieces that are seemingly incontrovertible masterpieces. If some minuet or contredanse turns out to be not by Mozart, but by Michael Haydn or Salieri, I’m unmoved. The pieces are gonna be par for the course professionalism, anyway, and M. Haydn and Salieri are at least capable of that. It is a mistake, I think, to postulate that this or that piece is “greater than the sum of its parts”; when such assertions are made, I tend to assume that the “parts” are not properly appreciated. Certain blunter pieces by Beethoven or even large pieces by a composer like Shostakovich seem to achieve more than their immediately perceptible technical merits seem to augur. This has to do primarily with composition in the original meaning of the word, the selection and arrangement of materials.

A composition such as the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the whole of, let’s say, Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony rely on composition in the original sense of the word described above. In isolation, there is little to admire in the intrinsic materials, but the materials are co-ordinated in a larger whole that creates profound musical meaning. If this were not the case, wouldn’t we be tempted to consider Florent Schmitt’s piano music the equivalent of Chopin’s, or Ravel’s music among the very greatest achievements? But those latter works are typically satisfying. But the satisfaction derived from much of Schmitt or Ravel can indeed be attributed to their “immediately perceptible technical merits”. I’m not persuaded that such a standard is particularly applicable to the greater achievements of Bach, or Beethoven, or Shostakovich.

I wonder if the whole thing doesn’t reveal a “sees the trees but not the forest” sort of outlook fostered by the inculcation of a limited academic perspective in analysis, fostered by the problemmatical absorption of music into limited and doctrinaire academic frameworks.