Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Makes a "Musical Masterpiece"?

In the comments to a post entitled Sir Mad Max over at Sequenza21 an interesting sup-plot developed (OK, I thought it was interesting) concerning the definition of what is - and is not - a musical masterpiece. So, I looked it up. The dictionary in Mac OS X gave me this:

masterpiece |ˈmastərˌpēs| noun

a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship : a great literary masterpiece | the car was a masterpiece of space-age technology.
• an artist's or craftsman's best piece of work : the painting is arguably Picasso's masterpiece.

• historical

a piece of work by a craftsman accepted as qualification for membership of a guild as an acknowledged master.

Further, the thesaurus provided:

masterpiece | noun

Vivaldi's masterpiece pièce de résistance, chef-d'œuvre, masterwork, magnum opus, finest/best work, tour de force.

I find the concept fascinating on many levels, but the term masterpiece is often applied strictly to transcendent works of sublimity, which seems too restrictive to me. Sure, we can probably all agree that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a masterpiece, but so is the Eroica (In B's estimation his finest) and, of course, all of the late string quartets. I would go further and say that everything Beethoven wrote after his Opus 18 string quartets qualifies as a masterpiece.

Where to begin with JS Bach? Of course we could agree that A Musical Offering and Die Kunst der Fuge are musical masterpieces, but what of the Lute Suites, Cello Suites, and the Violin Sonatas and Partitas? Those are masterpieces too as far as I'm concerned because - despite the brevity of some of the individual tunes - the collections as a whole display supreme mastery of those varied idioms.

I prefer the term be used as something beyond a journeyman effort:

journeyman |ˈjərnēmən| noun ( pl. -men)

a trained worker who is employed by someone else.

• a worker or sports player who is reliable but not outstanding : [as adj. ] a solid journeyman professional.

I posted the definition of masterpiece in the comments to the Sequenza21 thread and posited that any mature composer (Assuming the presence of innate and intuitive musical talent) has written at least one musical masterpiece.

Now, obviously again, there will always be some subjectivity intruding on these kinds of evaluations, but I believe that if one applies all of the objectivity that one can muster, reasonable conclusions may be reached. For example, I really can't stand the big, bombastic symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler - they are great for relieving my bouts with insomnia - but I can nonetheless recognize that they are musical masterpieces. Sibelius? Now him I "like" but at the same time, I can see where many might judge Mahler the better composer. Point is, "like" has nothing to do with it. Point is, the display of mastery does.

So, I am a proponent of thinking of musical masterpieces more in line with the display of mastery which would qualify one for membership in a guild, but perhaps slightly more than that. Certainly less than the "once in a lifetime" definition that many bandy about, as in "the Sistine Chapel ceiling was Michelangelo's masterpiece" (A dubious claim, in my opinion, as his output was so vast and filled with masterpieces).

To put my money where my pixelating is, what would I judge to be a masterpiece that I have written? Well, the first one I have no doubt about would be my Fugue in F Minor for string quartet (I wrote that about thirteen years ago), but I could see where some might consider that a journeyman effort since its style is so derivative of Bach's late work. What I have no doubt about, however, is that the Axial Fugue in E Minor for solo classic guitar that I wrote last year and finished up a couple of weeks ago is definitely a musical masterpiece. Furthermore, I'm convinced that it is the best fugue ever written for the solo guitar (Not that there is a lot of competition in that genera, and please note that I am excluding transcriptions of Bach's lute works). To put a finer point on that, I'd say that the Axial Fugue will remain in a virtually unassailable position for some time to come.

You can judge for yourself, of course, as the score and MP3 are available for download from my .Mac Download Page. The string quartet fugue is there as well, if you scroll down far enough.

This post is too long already, so I won't offer a defense of my position on that fugue unless someone would like me to, but the point is not to brag about the thing, it's to note that I find some of the works of others to be masterful enough to qualify as musical masterpieces as well. Yes, even some composers who I can't stand and with whom I agree on just about nothing.

Like I said, "like" has nothing to do with it.

Now that is a masterpiece.


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