Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I have been listening a good deal lately to the Cesar Franck violin sonata, which I have enjoyed for many years. It is, in some ways, perfect. That is, for at least one time in his career, Franck got everything right. The first two movements, taken together, are huge for such a small form, filled with colors and textures, and possessing great strength. The third movement is wonderfully inventive and modern-feeling, while the finale contains one of my favorite themes in all of music, beautifully crafted and balanced, irresistible in its lyrical delicacy and expressiveness. It is a great work of musical art.

This led me to reflect on other composers who got it right at least once. Bizet is an example, with 'Carmen.' It is a wildly successful opera, and stands almost alone in his body of work for its achievement. Everything is right; it is dramatic, entertaining, and contains some of the most famous melodies in all of music. Now, I admit that Bizet wrote one very good symphony (when he was 17 I learned recently), which among other things contains a wonderful oboe solo; and the suite from l' Arlesienne remains popular, but 'Carmen' stands apart as a magnificent anomaly.

I find as I get older that I appreciate more the work of Jean Sibelius, whom I now regard as one of the best composers of the twentieth century (I think Prokoviev is the best), and I listen more often now to his music. He was an enormously talented man, but, I think, he was limited by the fact that he rarely transcended the confines of his national character. Much of his music sounds vaguely like a Finlandic winter to me, although his work, especially the symphonies, contain themes of great beauty and power. The problem is that the listener has to wade through so much turgid and tedious development to get to them; rather like trekking across the tundra to reach a few wonderful resorts.

The exception in Sibelius is the Violin Concerto, which, like the Franck sonata, is perfect. In that one work, everything comes together, everything is right. The piece has all that a great violin concerto should have: a big, powerful first movement, a lyrical, moving second, and a wonderful, exuberant thrill ride of a third. I love the Sibelius Violin Concerto, indeed, it is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it represents, to me, the best example of a composer getting it all right at least once in his career.

Vivaldi wrote a large number of pieces, some of which are wonderful, many of which are virtually indistinguishable from one another, but in the Four Seasons, he created one of the icons of Western music. Carl Orff was an important musicologist and pedagogue, but he is primarily remembered for one work, the oratorio Carmina Burana, which is absolutely brilliant. Biber's great accomplishment is the Mystery Sonatas (the pasacaglia from which inspired Bach's great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin, my favorite piece of music), and Guillaume de Machaut is remembered for his Messe de Notre Dame, which is one of the jewels of the pre-Renaissance.

There are other examples that I could cite, but the larger point is that such unique outbursts of brilliance serve to remind us of those composers who got it right over and over, year after year, in masterpiece after masterpiece. Bach is the greatest example of this. The sheer of volume of his masterworks is almost incomprehensible. That one man could produce works of such genius over so long a period defies imagination. Mozart is another, and Beethoven, too, of course. Brahms produced a very large body of masterful works during his lifetime, as did Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and, to a lesser extent, Prokoviev and Ravel. For such composers, 'getting it right' was the norm, and the occasional misses were the exception.

All this leads me, in turn, to reflect that there are two modes, if you will, of genius: sustained and punctual. Some artists are capable of moments of genius, while a few, a very few, seem to dwell in genius as a nearly permanent condition. Where, I wonder, in our own time, are the latter kind of artist? I don't see any. Perhaps some of you can suggest them.