Mystery score

Mystery score

Monday, April 19, 2010

Aaron Copland is the Most Overrated Composer of the 20th Century

That is all.

40 comments:

Michael Walsh said...

That's slightly unfair. He's the only alternative for snobs who can't bear to select Gershwin as the Great American Composer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hahahaha.

My nominee would have to be Carter! or Ives.

Elaine Fine said...

What about Virgil Thomson?

Elaine Fine said...

. . . as the most overrated, NOT as anything close to a Great American Composer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think Thomson is regarded as minor, which by definition doesn't mean overrated. Can you say more about his reputation?

Elaine Fine said...

We're speaking relatively, of course, and much of his over-rating is for his writing about music:

"Included in his many honors and awards are the Pulitzer Prize, a Brandeis Award, the gold medal for music from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Book Circle Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Music Council Award, and 20 honorary doctorates."

Copland's writing about music, by the way, is very impressive. Far more impressive, in my opinion, than Thomson's.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thomson had a powerful position as a critic during his lifetime. I have never read any of his or Copland's writings on music, and should.

Tim said...

Thomson's criticism is awesome. Among the best ever written, in my opinion. Sorry Elaine. You should (have to!) read some Lisa. Try to get a hold of The Virgil Thomson Reader.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Horse races!

Henry Holland said...

Since the title isn't Most Overrated American Composer --that's easily John Adams by the distance from here to the Tarantula Nebula-- I'll say Stravinsky. He's basically liked by audiences for his three early ballet scores and Oedipus Rex, but should never be forgiven for being a large factor in the rise of the abomination called Neo-Classicism and its offshoots. I find most of his music to be arid and academic, pastiches at best, plagiarisms at worst. [dons flame resistant suit]

Michael Walsh said...

There are two ways to approach "most overrated". One is to ask which composer unjustifiably occupies a major slice of the reputation and repetoire. This usually comes down to a matter of taste, and the crown has been passed to many composers like Sibelius, Rachmaninoff or the previously mentioned Stravinsky, all of whom I like and none of whom I think deserve the title. For my money, that's Prokofiev. He parlayed a couple of historically well-placed pieces into a dominant position in the latter half of the 20th century, and whose rep really has only started to fade in the last decade.

The other way to approach it is to look at lesser composers and wonder how they have any rep at all. Admittedly, this is even more unfair and a matter of taste. From my view, Henryk Gorecki gets the silver for the incredible and inexplicable popularity of his Third Symphony. But it's a distant second to Alan Hovhaness, a prolific craftsman of musical tofu who seems to always be the third composer in the H bin after Haydn and Holst, slighting 20th century betters like Hindemith, Hartmann, Harrison or Hanson.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"Prolific craftsman of musical tofu" really deserves to be framed.

Henry, you're nuts. :)

Brian said...

I'm so with you on Copland being overrated. But if I had to pick a second choice, it'd be Bernstein. (Tobias Picker would be in hot pursuit as well. He only benefits from not being rated all that highly to begin with.)

Anonymous said...

Nope, it's not Copland. Most overrated is a tie between Ives and Carter. Oops, those just happen to be someone's noms for greatest! And no, that's not the reason why I said they are the most overrated - I have long thought that about Ives and Carter (which, I hasten to add, is not to say I think they are terrible composers).

But, of course, it only makes sense that some people think they are the greatest, if we're talking about overrating.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I know very little Bernstein, but his big orchestral pieces are starting to make a comeback. I need to pick up that newish recording of the Mess...er, Mass to see what I think.

Regarding Picker, I have a CD of various stuff that I've been through once and need to hear a couple more times, plus I need to pick up Emmeline, since Racette is in it. And Brian, I owe you email!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Jeez. Sorry - I managed to post my last comment three times owing to very slow Blogger response.

I received email showing someone had posted an anonymous comment about Carter and Ives, but it is not visible. Anonymously posted comments can't be deleted by the commenter, so there was some kind of glitch. Here's the comment:

***

Copland may not be the most overrated, but he must be overrated by some, if they bother to put on weak stuff like that. It is as if the Berkeley Symphony decided to program Carter's mindlessly derivative Holiday Overture (no wonder Carter went in the direction he did - he was unable to compose mainstream music worth hearing, and probably figured out that his only viable career choice was in composing music that would baffle all but the jaded and leather-eared "experts", and sure enough, that was a very smart move).

***

Carter was reasonable successful as a composer of, well, standard American music, and given what he has said consistently over a long period, I believe his move to his middle, late, and later style was entirely self-motivated because it is what he wanted to do. He's independently wealthy and has never been dependent on teaching or royalties to make a living. So, yeah, he can do what he wants.

I disagree with your characterization of his music but that's what makes horse races.

Daniel Wolf said...

If we want to start collecting composers with overrated reputations, we'd better plan on a long night, for every composer is uneven in his or her output and we're inevitably comparing major and minor composers with one another and everyone in-between. It also depends upon who is doing the rating and for what purpose. If the measure of overrated is just the gap between attention received and either the quality or reception of the work, then Roger Sessions and Michael Tippett might be pretty high on the list on either account. If it is, on the other hand, between the aspirations of the work and its success in realization, I'll risk serious unpopularity around your blog, Lisa, with the assertion than no 20th century composer was as overrated as Wagner, in that his works are virtually impossible to perform satisfactorily: the texts are clumsy, the vocal parts written for voices that really do not (and have never) exist(ed), and they appear increasingly impossible to stage to a standard that allows an audience to suspend disbelief.

If you accept my premise of uneven composers, perhaps it'd be easier to recognize that the problem is not Copland per se, but the reputation machine around him. Copland was certainly not an unwilling participant in this, but the real issue is the quality of individual works and Copland certainly had his share of superb pieces, particularly music for dance and film. Unfortunately, but probably not surprisingly, operas were not among them. I think that the lack of operas is, in large part, a function of his age. If you compare careers with the 13-year younger Britten, you will note that when Copland was at the age in which Britten was establishing himself as a successful opera composer, the US was in the Great Depression (and NO operas were being commissioned) while Britten profited from the end of the second war. Moreover, the younger Britten had the energy to organize an opera company and a festival, which were largely vehicles for his own development as an opera composer, and these were precisely the kind of activity which Copland had engaged in in the 1920's. Of course, all of this is speculation and we will never know what kind of opera composer Copland would have been had he had the right opportunities to develop as an opera composer. He may well simply have not been an opera composer.

Finally, without taking up too much more of your comment space, I will half-agree with you about the most underrated composer, and that is Ives. The Fourth Symphony, Second Orchestral Set, The Unanswered Question, Three Places in New England, the two piano Sonatas, the four Sonatas for violin and piano, and a large handful of the songs should be sufficient evidence of that!

Daniel Wolf said...

I have to put a word in for Virgil Thomson. While by no means the GAC, and despite his abundant ego, he was very much a composer in a tradition which rejected the whole "great composer/great works" ideology and was often at his best in minor — and, frequently, comic — forms, like his model Satie. Three Saints in Four Acts, the Sonata da Chiesa, the three documentary film scores, and the Third Symphony are definitely great pieces. Thomson's role, particularly in the film scores, in defining the "Americana" style of the 30s and 40s has unfortunately been shortchanged to the benefit of Copland and Harris.

Thomson was also a fine music critic, a role he took up approximately at the same time Copland changed his own professional focus to conducting. To his personal credit, but to the disadvantage of his compositional career, there is little evidence that Thomson used the role to promote his own music.

Daniel Wolf said...

Lisa,

I have to add something about the canard of Carter's supposed wealth. According to Schiff's book on carter, his family was indeed wealthy, but his parents disapproved of his decision to become a composer, so cut him off except for a small stipend and he made his living as a teacher, most notably as a tutor (of Greek, among other things) at St John's in Annapolis. Carter used to complain about his teeth having suffered from not being able to afford better care. I would assume that at this point, he is very comfortable, but this was simply not the case for the time most of us would describe as his working years.

Joe Barron said...

Shos.
Ta.
Ko.
Vitch.

Elaine Fine said...

When considering over-rating, you always have to consider the over-rater.

I can't really consider someone's music overrated unless I have played a piece or two of that "overrated" composer. My overrating suggestion of Virgil Thomson (and it is for his music, not his writing) comes from having to slog through "The Plough that Broke the Plains."

I have enjoyed playing Carter (at least his Woodwind Quintet and his Eight Etudes and a Fantasy), but I do not think that I would enjoy playing his string quartets (or maybe I might). I never appreciated either Stravinsky or Wagner until I had to opportunity to play their orchestral music.

I have never enjoyed playing Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano, and was not pleased to learn that most of the material in his Rodeo comes from pre-existing music written by unnamed composers. Still, there are an awful lot of people (many ignorant of a lot of classical music) who find Copland's music extremely moving. I find his orchestration quite competent.

There are many composers alive to day who do not impress me (some of them are really embraced by institutions and powers that be and powers that were), but one of them might just write something that I consider really worthwhile, so I'll keep my mouth shut. Hope springs eternal.

To paraphrase Kipling "by means of a grating, I've stopped my (over)rating."

calimac said...

Thomson's criticism is vigorous and interesting even when wrong-headed. I have the Reader. But he also wrote a book, title forgotten by me, on the economic side of contemporary music which is so off-balance and disorganized as to be an embarrassment. But he was very proud of it.

People of the Sveja persuasion, who bash composers like Gorecki and Hovhaness, are entitled not to like them, but to call their works empty of value is only to reveal total ignorance of a major field of musical aesthetics, and a deafness, I think, to emotional content in music. It's like calling Ives incoherent chaos - from one point of view it's exactly that, but I think we've figured out by now that that's not a useful point of view to look at it from.

calimac said...

Michael Walsh's claim that Prokofiev's reputation has started to fade is one of the most hilarious pieces of self-deluded wish fulfillment since the last time somebody claimed that the Tolkien bubble has finally been pricked. If anything, he's growing, or did I only imagine the recent SFS and Stanford Prokofiev festivals?

If only I didn't hear Romeo and Juliet so damn often. It's the only work of Prokofiev's I've ever actually gotten tired of.

Michael Walsh said...

la-la-la I can't hear you la-la-la

(trans. Touche, calimac. Perhaps I've learned to ignore these things to save my sanity.)

Joe Barron said...

One man's "emotional content in music" is another man' schmaltz ...

calimac said...

Some people get called schmaltz, but Gorecki and Hovhaness get called tofu, which nutritionally is quite different.

The charge against them has always been not that they are overloaded with emotion, but that they are intellectually empty. But this can be held only by one who worships at the shrine of complexity. There are other gods some wot not of.

Joe Barron said...

One does not have to worship at the shrine of complexity to be bored by banality.

calimac said...

Joe: True, but since neither Gorecki nor Hovhaness are remotely banal, irrelevant.

calimac said...

Joe: True, but since neither Gorecki nor Hovhaness is remotely banal, irrelevant. To suggest that they are says a lot about the person who says it, nothing about the music.

Joe Barron said...

That's hardly news. Any artistic judgment says more about the sayer than the thing said about.

Henry Holland said...

My complaint about Hovhaness is the same I have about Handel and Haydn and Vivaldi and others: they wrote too much music. I'm sorry, but no composer --not Mozart, not Beethoven, no one-- can have 700-1000 opus numbers and have the quality be consistent or high over large swathes of it.

Sure, Vivaldi and Haydn, and for most of his career Mozart, had an excuse, they were churning out music for their court patrons to have played at dinner and other functions, but what's Hovhanhess' excuse?

I think Mozart would have been astonished that people would go around saying crap like "Every note Mozart wrote was touched by God" and all the other nonsense that's been written along those lines, as I'm sure when he was cranking out nondescript, mediocre stuff like the German Dances, he wasn't thinking of immortality but rather whether he'd be paid on time.

Michael Walsh said...

Okay, my words are now being warped.

I do not, as calimac suggests, think that Hovhaness or Gorecki are banal.

I think they are bland. A very different problem.

Elaine Fine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine Fine said...

The quality of Haydn's music wasn't consistent? And Handel's? I can think of one piece I like by Hovhannes: "The Garden of Adonis." I am having a hard time thinking of a piece of either Haydn or Handel that I don't like. Or Vivaldi, for that matter.

People write music for all kinds of reasons, and many are not saddled with the obligation to create masterpieces.

So Hovhannes missed the mark a few times, or a few hundred times. He destroyed at least 1000 of his compositions, and followed all kinds of musical paths, many of them eastward. If he didn't make some kind of mark in the world of of music, we wouldn't be talking about him, would we?

Henry Holland said...

I am having a hard time thinking of a piece of either Haydn or Handel that I don't like. Or Vivaldi, for that matter

I hear a LOT of Haydn, Handel and Vivaldi because they are staples on KUSC, which I listen to in my car, at work and at home. They are played more than Stairway to Heaven and Free Bird on classic rock radio! :-)

What drives me nuts about their music is the sheer predictability of it, there's not one jot of mystery or surprise for me. Now, of course, that's not fair of me to expect their music to be like Schoenberg's Erwartung, which doesn't have one measure that repeats in its 500 bars, but I simply grow weary of the 8 bar phrases ending in a ii7-V7-I cadence, the simple forms, the limited (compared to Schreker et al) tonal palette. No, the string players tapping their bows on their music stands doesn't rate, sorry.

For my dad, those are *positives*, what drives him crazy about the "plink-plonk music" that I listen to (as he calls it) is the fact that there's nothing to grab on to, once an idea is presented, it's gone as it's rarely developed, it's the barrage of ideas that drives him nuts.

If he didn't make some kind of mark in the world of of music, we wouldn't be talking about him, would we?

If by "talking about him" you mean "deriding him", sure, and besides, Britney Spears has made "some kind of mark" in the world of music, so I don't really find that argument very persuasive.

calimac said...

Michael Walsh: Relax, your words were not being warped. You didn't say Hovhaness and Gorecki were banal. It was Joe Barron who wrote of "banality" in response to my earlier comment to you, and to him that I was responding, as signified by his name followed by a colon at the start of my post.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, about Prokofiev - just when was he in a dominant position and how would you define that? he gets attention, but dominant?

Lisa Hirsch said...

(yeah, finally catching up...)

Daniel -

Thank you for the correction on Carter. I have the book and obviously haven't read the biographical sections carefully enough.

Those are good points about Copland's unevenness and his age in relation to world events, as it were. Did he want to write opera? There were some new operas performed at the Met in the 1930s, by the way.

I don't agree that Wagner's works are virtually impossible to perform satisfactorily. I've heard plenty of good to great performances of his music, in fact, more than I've heard of Verdi's works.

It is not the case that he wrote for voices that have never existed, except, perhaps, the role of Siegfried. I've written multiple rants about the fact that he never intended his music to be performed in giant opera houses. Bayreuth is smallish, seating about 1900, and with the covered pit and orchestra mostly under the stage, singers don't have to force and they can have normal-sized voices.

I'm not sure what to say about the texts. They have their issues, but they spring from his particular philosophical standpoints about myth and history and music. They are not compact in the way that most opera texts are, for sure.

I'm not sure what you mean by "increasingly impossible to stage to a standard that allows an audience to suspend disbelief." How are you measuring that? The audience for Wagner performances doesn't seem to be declining...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Joe - Shostakovich! I don't agree.

Elaine, thank you, really interesting and worthwhile comments about perspective as a determinant of one's view of a particular composer. How I wish I could play Carter's string quartets!

calimac - oh, I don't think that your comments follow logically, that to find Gorecki and Hovhaness intellectually empty is a view that can only be held by one who worships at the shrine of complexity. I'm sure that is true of some and equally sure that the two point of view are orthogonal for others.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Henry, Haydn worked at an incredibly high level over a huge body of work - the symphonies, the string quartets, other chamber music. Schubert's songs, all 800 of them, are, again, at a remarkable level of good to great consistency. It is, of course, true that every composer writes some mediocre music. Beethoven's WoO works are full of, um, occasional pieces.

Uuuhhhh....there's a lot of development in Schoenberg!

Elaine is right on with "People write music for all kinds of reasons, and many are not saddled with the obligation to create masterpieces."