Not Every Composer Has Everything: Some Half Hearted Provocations

Amidst the plethora of plaudits for Dmitri Shostakovich over the last couple of decades, you sometimes encounter a dissenting voice, as these pages encountered a dissenting voice in connection to Shostakovich 11. This piece is indeed open to criticism in its melodic aspect. And if you persist in evaluating harmony on a purely vertical basis, as opposed to a long range linear conception, it can be criticized there, as well. And it is full of violence.

But not every viable or even great piece succeeds in all musical dimensions. I’ve noted the grasp of long range structure in Shosty 11, which allows the piece to succeed as a cumultive experience. Here are some very arguable points, not every one of which I personally subscribe to:

Potential weaknesses in the masters:

1. For Schubert’s purely instrumental works, a relative lack of counterpoint. (There are exceptions! I know all about the inner strings in the intro to the Ninth, for instance.)

2. For Schumann and Bruckner, changing persistent rythmic patterns elegantly, or sometimes even competently.

3. For Mahler: There is too much about the composer, himself, personally. Also, occasional formal arbitrariness. His greatest score, Das Lied von der Erde, is not coincidentally the one piece that entirely avoids these potential pitfalls.

4. For Haydn, if we really have to find something: Not all his minuets are equally charming.

5. For Vivaldi: an inability to develop themes rather than to simply sequence them.

6. For Berlioz, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Schnittke: Too great a reliance on picquaint instrumental sonority. (I would include Respighi, Milhaud, and Villa-Lobos, but I’m trying to restrict myself to the obvious heavy hitters. Yes, R-Korsakov, Ravel and Schnittke are heavy hitters.

7. For Schoenberg: A tendency to hysteria.

8. For Liszt, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky: An unusually pronounced gap in inspiration between the successful pieces and the also-rans. Maybe this is unfair, however…even the greatest composers can’t command inspiration.

9. For Stravinsky: Spiritual coldness. This is a heavy charge, and one I’m not particularly desirous of maintaining, Stravinsky is so resourceful and intelligent, and yet… 

10. For Handel: A marked tendency for the too simply grandiose or schematic.

I can’t find anything I’d be willing to even suggest laying at the doorsteps of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner, or Berg…Brahms? He wrote Ein Deutsches Requiem, so he gets a one-time only pass. Strauss? Which one? The one with the waltzes or the one with the Super-man Waltzes?