go home Music

National Review, 12/31/1996, Vol. 48 Issue 25, p44-47, 3p,

MEN FOR ALL SEASONS

BALINT VAZSONYI


This article comments on the programs of the New York Philharmonic for the 1966-1967 season. Both seasons included performances of Verdi's "Requiem" and "War Requiem" by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and featured a variety of composers and compositions. In generic terms, the Philharmonic is a symphony orchestra. It was named for a composition that consisted of an allegro, a slow movement, a dance movement and a lively finale. With the help of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), it became the ultimate achievement in orchestral composition. During the 1966-1967 season, the New York Philharmonic offered three symphonies by Haydn, one by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), four by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), three by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), one by Robert Schumann and two by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

* * *

THE decades flanking the year 1800 turned out to be decisive in shaping the history of this country, and the rest of the world as well. Credit must go to a remarkable group of men who happened to live at the same time within a relatively small geographic area. Their names are etched in the minds and hearts of a grateful posterity: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.

The only reason to withhold the epithet ``one-time miracle'' from such a gathering of genius is the simultaneous existence of another small group of men, living and working within an even smaller geographic area an ocean away. Rather than through the mind, they reach our hearts through the ear. Their names: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert. Among them, they created most of the greatest music in existence.

America's Founders did not materialize in a vacuum. From King Arthur's Round Table through Magna Carta, much had gone before to prepare the ground, and there was John Locke. Similarly, music could look back upon some distinguished centuries, and there was Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet in terms both of quantity and of quality what occurred simultaneously on the two sides of the Atlantic is without parallel. Until recently, it appeared that the principles of America's Founders were secure.

Until recently, flagship orchestras of the world built their annual programs around the vast treasury bequeathed to us by the giants. In every season, there would be adequate representation of the greater and lesser Romantics of the nineteenth century, a selection from the early eighteenth and from the early twentieth, and space reserved for the music of our own time. Yet, just as the principles by which America lived were until recently those of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, the core of orchestral programming every year would be provided by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. They were the men for all seasons.

In Bach's hands music became a universal language. To Haydn we owe the eternal forms: symphony, sonata, string quartet. Mozart brings us closest to Divine perfection. Beethoven taught music to speak a human language, capable of expressing the entire spectrum of the human experience, and, finally, to rise beyond the hold of gravity. Schubert touches the heart with the fewest notes of all.

Such thoughts were rushing through my mind as I surveyed the programs of the New York Philharmonic for the 1996 - 1997 season. Putting together programs, of course, is a truly ungrateful task. That which is left out always outweighs that which is included. The season must be popular in order to sell tickets, yet it should be balanced, and should afford a disproportionate opportunity for the country's living composers. Add to this differences in taste and the need to reconcile the preferences of the music director with those of the guest artists, and the task becomes formidable indeed.

Criticizing is easier than producing, but I will comment nevertheless. On a hunch, I decided to review the 1966 - 67 season, because that is about when our world began to change. By this, I mean the phenomenon of gradually phasing out and ultimately ignoring the past -- the wish to dispense with the foundations altogether.

The New York Philharmonic kindly provided a copy of the earlier schedule. Interestingly, both seasons include performances of Verdi's Requiem and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Both seasons offer an enormous variety of composers and compositions. Both seasons make generous room for Americans and opportunities to hear first performances.

But there the similarities end. Now, in generic terms, the Philharmonic is a symphony orchestra, named for a composition consisting, generally, of four movements: an allegro (occasionally with a slow introduction), a slow movement, a dance movement, and a lively finale. The word sinfonia began life referring to an orchestral curtain raiser to Neapolitan opera, but in the hands of Joseph Haydn it became the ultimate achievement in orchestral composition.

Haydn himself composed more than a hundred symphonies; Mozart, 41. Beethoven wrote only nine, but those nine created an inferiority complex in his successors; Brahms hesitated for 22 years before unveiling his first symphony. Between Beethoven and Brahms, the symphonies of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann maintained the line of succession. Others have composed symphonies -- Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Dvorak -- yet the main, Viennese line stretches from Haydn to Brahms.

In 1966 - 67, the Philharmonic offered three symphonies by Haydn, one by Mozart, four by Beethoven, three by Schubert, one by Schumann, two by Brahms. This year, it is offering only one by Haydn, none by Mozart, two by Beethoven, three by Schubert (the probable reason being the bicentennial of his birth), one by Schumann, one by Brahms.

This is a 50 per cent reduction on the symphonic side, but wait. The total Beethoven repertoire in 1966 - 67 included five overtures (King Stephen, Egmont, Prometheus, Fidelio, and Leonore No. 3). The symphonies were the Eroica (in two programs), the Seventh, the Eighth (also in two programs), and the Ninth. There were also Piano Concertos No. 3 and No. 5 (Emperor), the Violin Concerto, and the Missa Solemnis. This year, we have Symphonies No. 1 and No. 5. That's it.

Haydn has been reduced to one symphony; Mozart to an overture and two piano concertos. Less Schubert will be heard in his bicentennial year than thirty years ago. No concertos by Schumann, or by Beethoven for that matter.

But a greater puzzle still is that, among the other 53 composers featured in 1996 - 97 (Adams, Barber, Bartok, Berlioz, Bizet, Britten, Bruch, Bruckner, Copland, Debussy, Dukas, Dvorak, Elgar, Ellington, Faure, Hanson, Harris, Hindemith, Ives, Janacek, Kancheli, Katzer, Kirchner, Kodaly, Lieberson, Mahler, Mendelssohn , Mussorgsky, Perle, Piston, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, Schmittke, W. Schuman, Sessions, Sibelius, R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Tanberg, Tchaikovsky, R. Thompson, Tippett, Tubin, Verdi, Vivaldi, Walton, Wilson) one looks in vain for Bach, Handel, Liszt, Wagner -- all present thirty years ago. At the same time, among them, Berlioz, Dvorak, and Rachmaninoff have 12(!) of their works performed.

DID I say, ``puzzle''? I misspoke. What we observe here is merely the reflection of a persistent development which affects all realms of society. The foregoing comparison presupposes reasonable agreement on matters of quality, greatness, importance. Every one of these categories involves values and judgment. Values, by definition, are absolute. Judgment is a faculty evolved, refined, cultivated over time. The fact is that, for the most part, our schools and our philanthropic institutions have forsaken every one of these categories. The masterwork has become a ``text''; evaluation has been replaced by ``reception''; keeping quiet until one has something to say has been supplanted by ``the right to self-expression.''

Such is the environment in which the planners of programs operate. Does anyone even remember a time when concert series were supposed to shape the public taste by offering the finest? That was the approach of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the brilliant young man who laid the foundations of the modern season. He did so in a warehouse of the linen merchants of Leipzig called the Gewandhaus -- the original of the organization that sent us Kurt Masur, present music director of the New York Philharmonic. Mendelssohn built his Historic Series around the finest works of past and present. He had already made history at the age of twenty by re-introducing Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew a century after its long-forgotten premiere. Now he began to build a middle-class audience with a taste for great music, introducing them to Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Schubert.

But the idea that artists should shape the public taste is ``elitist'' thinking, inadmissible in our egalitarian society. I recall getting my first notice to that effect after a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. A charming young lady, who attended the concert and the reception, apparently enjoyed my performance and included the composer in her compliments. ``It was just as beautiful as Scott Joplin,'' she suggested. (The movie The Sting had just broken records, and millions had discovered Joplin's compelling rags for the first time.) I ventured to make the point that Beethoven and Joplin were hardly in comparable categories. She disagreed vehemently. The conductor, a close friend of mine, took her side.

The young lady was the victim of a common misapprehension: that, by creating a different category in this case, Beethoven, one denies Joplin his place. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are occasions when Joplin is more appropriate than Beethoven. Yet there is a need to observe the distinction between the functions of entertainment and those of art, and an additional need to acknowledge a hierarchy within each. Both considerations have been thrown overboard, and it is Beethoven who is being denied his place.

Curiously, the same people who balk at the very suggestion of hierarchies in this context will find it quite natural to pay a great deal more for a BMW than for a Chevy Nova, will constantly upgrade their home computer, and, probably, have gone on to $200 gym shoes. The only realm in which they steadfastly refuse to entertain a system of values is the spiritual, the intangible.

But ridiculing the opposition falls short of the explanation required. In this age of mega-libraries, CD supermarkets, and the Internet, how are new generations to divine what should claim their limited time and attention? All matters of judgment and taste need cultivation -- a slow process, which requires keeping company with the best. Only in the last thirty years have people ceased to believe there is such a thing as “best.” Indeed, most people in most places and most of the time agreed on what that ``best'' was. Disagreements among the cultivated might pit Haydn against Mozart, or Wagner against Verdi, but never Beethoven against Elgar.

We come to think of certain works as great because they have given more profound and defining experiences to more people in more places than others. A line is to be drawn between thrills and defining experiences.

It is especially vital for members of the musical profession to cultivate the company of the great, for it is here that their own best skills will be required and may be judged. Nothing puts the string section of an orchestra to a higher test than a Haydn symphony, because there is no wall of brass behind which to hide. Nothing exposes the weakness of the French horns or the first bassoon like Beethoven's Fourth.

Was the young lady, then, not entitled to her opinion? Of course she was entitled. But she should not have declined to entertain a better-informed opinion. Worse still, my friend should not have denied his old-fashioned views. That evening, as I suspected then and know now, was my first sign of uninformed opinion about to take over, and informed opinion too intimidated to say, ``Stop.''

Today, the uninformed do more than express opinions. From their ranks come lecturers on the rostrum, authors in the bookstore, and recipients of vast foundation grants. Some of them probably would find two Beethoven symphonies in a season two too many.

Performing artists are still subject to a kind of natural selection. Playing an instrument requires not only talent, but lifelong discipline. Similar rules used to apply to composition. Aspirants needed to demonstrate that they were competent to improvise on a theme, construct all basic forms of music, and write acceptable counterpoint, and that they knew their way around the instruments for which they were composing. And that was still just competence, perhaps enough to get a job, but not to bring forth works that would earn a place in the concert hall. That required talent, if not genius.

But those days are gone. The current absence of any measurement of competence favors the charlatan. As in other art forms, accession to the lofty title ``artist'' often requires little more than a pronouncement by the person in question. How does a planner of programs determine quality? How does one fulfill the obligation of presenting new vintages with any hope that one's selection will be confirmed by posterity?

Unless we retain an adequate proportion of the greatest works, we will lose our ability to evaluate new ones. We will be mired in quicksand, rather than standing on solid ground. Explanatory program notes, however eloquent, will never replace the way great music makes us feel, because great music speaks to the heart through the ear. If it does not reach our heart, it is not great; if it does not reach us through the ear, it is not music. Should we forget this, we will be at the mercy of political, as opposed to aesthetic, considerations.

And here Vienna meets Philadelphia. How are we to judge today's politicians, unless we keep company with America's classic symphonies? In this case, it is not the Jupiter or the Eroica, but the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that provide the yardstick. Just as a composer ought to be expected to write decent form and counterpoint, our politicians must demonstrate that they remain anchored in the founding principles.

We the public will then be able to decide whether to buy a season ticket.
~~~~~~~~
Mr. Vazsonyi, a concert pianist and historian, is director of the Center for the American Founding, in Washington, D.C.
~~~~~~~~
Boston Globe 7/7/91 - From At the Hatch Shell, the music needs renovating, too

“...What the Hatch Shell is a symbol *of* is unclear in1991; it was not unclear when the structure was dedicated in 1940.

..... While the Boston Symphony is fond of imagining that everything it does is worldclass, in intention if not in accomplishment, the programming for the Esplanade represents no such thing: Some of it sets out to be *schlocky*, that’s what it is. By the time you get to the programs chosen by the British conductor *Harry Rabinowitz* for Friday, Saturday and tonight, the closest approach to concert music on the program is the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Frankly, most of what has been going on on the Esplanade for the last 20 years or so is a disgrace to the BSO’s standards and reputation, particularly since these concerts are the BSO’s principal free performance offering to a community of music-lovers that supports it handsomely.

.....[Arthur Fiedler] was a very serious musician, and his hero was Toscanini -- a former Pops librarian became the librarian for the NBC Symphony, and Arthur got all the inside information from Toscanini’s own scores. Today, people relax, put the music in the background, and say the experience is great--that, or they wouldn’t be caught there on a dare. And what the whole thing was all about, from the beginning, was giving it your very best shot. The Hatch Shell wasn’t built to become the symbol of schlock.”