What is Good Music?
How can we then determine who is a good composer and what is good music? We must begin by avoiding the pitfalls of language. Because in English all music is included under one word, “Music,” some have made the mistaken conclusion that all music is therefore somehow equal. A wide variety of music is available to us which uses the same notational language, but to say this makes all music equal in significance is just as absurd as saying Shakespeare and comic books are equal in significance because they both use letters of the alphabet or words of the same language. The reason great literature and great musical literature are more significant than less significant works has to do not with the language (although, of course, Shakespeare and Mozart did use beautiful language), but with the importance of what it is that that language communicates.
One characteristic of the very best music is universality — music which speaks so clearly and compellingly that it creates its own audience. It is this kind of music that Rossini once spoke of, in answer to a question from Ferdinand Hiller regarding whether poetry and music could ever arouse an equal interest at the same time. Rossini replied,
If the magic of music has really seized the hearer, the word undoubtedly will always come off second best. But if the music doesn’t seize the hearer, what is the good of it? It is useless then, if not superfluous or even detrimental.Ellis, “Prose Works of Wagner,” VIII, 377
A nice summary of some additional qualities of good music is given by Percy Scholes:
First, good music has vitality and bad music often has not. It is easier to recognize this characteristic than to define it. A melody which wanders aimlessly is not vital. Compare with such a melody the opening phrase of anyone of Beethoven’s sonatas, symphonies or string quartets—a phrase which in every instance arrests the attention … We feel ourselves at once to be in the presence of life. And in a ‘good’ piece of music this feeling continues to the end of the composition …
Originality. We may say that good music is individual and personal. There is no acid test for “goodness” in music. The thoughtful consideration of a trained taste must be applied, directed by some such method of analysis as that indicated above. It may not be possible by such means to prove a composition to be a masterpiece, but at all events great masses of second-rate music can thus be put aside.
Not all short-lived music is to be utterly condemned, for soundly-written journalism is a kind of literature. But it must be soundly written. There is, in fact, no excuse (beyond the commercial) for really “bad” music in any place or for any purpose.The Oxford Companion to Music, 7th ed., 770-773
The most important characteristic of good music is that it be inspired music, music written without purpose other than the composer’s honest desire to communicate his feelings. This we contrast with what we might call constructed music, music being turned out in great abundance by educational publishers today. This music is designed for a certain portion of the educational market, designed for mass sales, and is carefully written to meet the technical needs of that market. But it is certainly not inspired music. It is exactly the kind of music Mendelssohn had in mind when he wrote, “Music composed with a purpose will never reach the heart, because it does not come from the heart.” [Letter to his family, Sept. 2, 1831]
This kind of music has been around for a long time and for centuries serious musicians made the same complaint. This example by Liszt can serve as the representative of numerous others.
A work which offers only clever manipulation of its materials will always lay claim to the interest of the immediately concerned — of the artist, student, and connoisseur — but, despite this, it will be unable to cross the threshold of the artistic kingdom. Without carrying in itself the divine spark, without being a living poem, it will be ignored by society as though it did not exist at all, and no people will ever accept it as a leaf in the breviary of the cult of the beautiful.Letter to August Kiel, Sept.8, 1855
Wagner found this same lack of inspiration in much of the music of Meyerbeer, his much more popular rival in Paris,
In Meyerbeer’s music there is so appalling an emptiness, shallowness and artistic nothingness, that — especially when compared with by far the larger number of his musical contemporaries — we are tempted to set down his specific musical capacity at zero.
However, Wagner notes, there are moments here and there when, inspired by the libretto, Meyerbeer would rise to moments of great beauty and inspiration. In these passages, Wagner, in “sincerest joy and frank enthusiasm,” acknowledges these moments as examples of,
that genuine art-creation which must come to even the most corrupted music-maker, so soon as he treads the soil of a necessity stronger than his self-seeking caprice; of a necessity which suddenly guides his erring footsteps, to his own salvation, into the paths of sterling art.Ellis, II, 100ff
To discover good music the musician must first have cultivated good taste himself. He must then have the integrity to select the best music available to him and to reject everything else. Archibald T. Davison, the famous conductor of the Harvard University Glee Club, made this argument with regard to educational music in 1945,
The most serious demand is for teachers whose knowledge and experience of music is wide enough to guarantee a sound musical taste. Only when there is intelligent revolt against much educational material that now passes for music will there be hope for a productive music education in this country.Willi, “Harvard Dictionary of Music,” 472
Schumann was another who called upon musicians to fight this fight.
You ought not help to spread bad compositions, but, on the contrary, help to suppress them with all your force.“Maxims for Young Musicians,” 1848
Does this kind of integrity in the selection of music really matter? Wagner once addressed this very question,
Why make such a fuss about the falsification of artistic judgment or musical taste? Is it not a mere bagatelle, compared with all the other things we falsify: commercial goods, sciences, food, public opinions, State culture-tendencies, religious dogmas, clover seeds, and what not? Are we to grow virtuous all of a sudden in Music? The acceptance of the empty for the sound is stunting everything we possess in the way of schools, academies, and so on, by ruining the most natural feelings and misguiding the faculties of the rising generation … But that we should pay for all this, and have nothing left when we come to our senses … this, to be frank, is abominable!Ellis, VI, 146ff
In a parody of a familiar Protestant Credo, Wagner proposes a special kind of punishment for those who willingly propagate poor music.
I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven, and likewise their disciples and apostles;Ellis, VII, 66ff
I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of one, indivisible Art;
I believe that this Art proceeds from God, and lives within the hearts of illumined men;
I believe that he who once has bathed in the sublime delights of this high Art, is consecrated to Her forever, and never can deny Her; I believe that through this Art all men are saved; …
I believe in a last judgment, which will condemn to fearful pains all those who in this world have dared to play the huckster with chaste Art, have violated and dishonored Her through evilness of heart and ribald lust of senses; I believe that these will be condemned through all eternity to hear their own vile music.
Aesthetic Considerations on Repertoire
The first principle regarding the selection of repertoire is that a choice must be made between an aesthetic concert or an entertainment event. It is fundamentally important to understand that psychologically there is no middle ground whatsoever between these two choices. The inclusion of a single composition whose purpose is entertainment ipso facto turns the entire evening program into an entertainment event. For example, I recently read a proposed university wind ensemble program online which consisted of important aesthetic repertoire, including Hindemith and a major work by Grainger. An outstanding program, which unfortunately concluded with a march. I say unfortunate because ending with a march works like an electronic eraser — completely eliminating in the memory of the audience any residual cathartic feelings from the concert. Psychologically it is all gone and only the march will be remembered. There is no question about this.
This aesthetic problem is not new to our time; I am sure the temptation has always been there. Wagner wrote about a concert he attended in order to hear a work by Beethoven performed by the great pianist, Franz Liszt. Here again the inclusion of a Galop to close the concert ruined the experience for Wagner.
There stands the placard, inviting you to a lordly feast; one name shines on you: Beethoven! Enough. Here is the concert-room. And positively, Beethoven appears to you; all around sit the high-bred ladies, row after row of high-bred ladies, and in a wide half-moon behind them lively gentlemen with lorgnettes in the eye. But Beethoven is there, midst all the perfumed agony of dream-rocked elegance: it really is Beethoven, sinew and broad, in all his sad omnipotence. But, who comes there with him? Great God? – “Guillaume Tell,” and “Robert the Devil,’ and — who after these? Weber, the tender and true! Good! And then — a Galop. O heavens!Ellis, VII, 113
The second aesthetic principle with regard to the selection of repertoire is that under no circumstances is it possible to make a bad piece sound good. As Bruno Walter once explained, the very process of rehearsal will clarify and bring into sharp focus the elements which make a bad composition bad. The result is that the more you rehearse, the worse the composition sounds. There is also no question about this. If you make this mistake and you select, for example, some work you think the students will like, knowing it is not a composition of value but that with your brilliant teaching and conducting you will make it sound good, in the space of a few rehearsals you will be banging you head against the wall.
There is also an ethical question regarding music education: is there any excuse to program any but the best compositions for students to absorb?
After observing these two principles, and assuming we are discussing an aesthetic concert, now the question is does the conductor select repertoire for himself, for his students or for the public? This is a question loaded with psychological issues, regardless of the answer. Having decided on an aesthetic concert, we can immediately eliminate the audience as a consideration in our choice of repertoire. Every critic and philosopher for 2,000 years has agreed that one must not program for the public for a single step in that direction leads to entertainment music. Furthermore, all early philosophers point out that to program for the public is to program for the lowest level of society, as one might think of the public being the base of a triangle. The great composers make this distinction very clear.
If it is art, it is not for all; and if it is for all, it is not art.Shapiro, “Quotations,” 237
I assert that it is impossible for anything to be truly good if it is reckoned in advance for presentation to the public.Ellis, III, 96
Being left now with a choice between programming for oneself, the conductor, or the performers, I strongly recommend programming for oneself. If the conductor programs a composition he is dying to conduct, it follows he will enter the rehearsal hall filled with the spirit of the music and this, following Plato’s brilliant use of a magnet as an analogy, will in turn fill the performers with the spirit of the music. A rehearsal where everyone is enthusiastic about and filled with the spirit of the music creates a psychological state which guarantees a fine rehearsal. There is no atmosphere more deadly than a rehearsal which begins with the conductor saying, “This is a very good piece. You may not like it at first, but…”
To illustrate what I mean by “a composition I am dying to conduct,” I often describe to conducting students a circumstance where I am walking into a room and I see a score of a great work I love to conduct lying on the piano. Just seeing this composition does not have a passive effect, rather the very sight of it makes my heart beat faster, makes perspiration appear on my forehead — I want to conduct this piece, where is the band!
Before my retirement it was my practice every summer to plan the repertoire for the following year and the summer vacation gave me the necessary time to devote to this vital issue. Always there were new scores which had been sent for my consideration and, depending on the complexity, it could take some days of study just to find out if the physical manifestation mentioned in the previous paragraph appeared or not. If I did not feel this way then, even if the work were by a fellow colleague at the university, on to the floor it went. Next I would make a list of all the works from the band’s repertoire which I thought the students should know and which I was dying to do again. This list would always be longer than the performance time available in the following year, so it guaranteed that I would walk into the rehearsal hall excited every day. Devoting this amount of time to the selection meant it was very rare that I was found banging my head against the wall.
There is one more consideration which I believe is very important to the profession. Some months ago I heard one of the very best recitals I have ever heard, a program of the piano music of Schubert performed by Emanuel Ax. His performance, with frequent rubato, long careful ritardandos in cadences, beautiful shaping of melodies, etc., made the peerformance a very moving experience. It occurred to me sitting there that no teacher taught him to play like this. It was the music itself which made him such a sensitive performer. This, in turn, led me to think of the band repertoire, where we really don’t have enough compositions to teach us how to play with such sensitivity. Aside from Mozart, Beethoven and the 19th century Italian Sinfonias, we have mostly fast and loud music. So I would recommend as an additional thought in choosing repertoire to try to find music that will make you a more expressive musician.
Psychological Issues in Repertoire
I believe there are additional psychological issues reflected in the band’s repertoire which greatly impact the view of our profession by other musicians and the public as well. The first of these is an addiction to entertainment goals, to be popular and to make the listeners happy. This addiction among university band conductors is not as strong as it used to be, as in the case some years ago when a Big Ten band director told me that the only criteria in judging the value of a university band was if it had standing room only audiences. While things have improved, the addiction is still there. Why?
During the Classical Period, with the exception of Mozart, nearly all musicians were court servants, with secondary duties which had nothing to do with music. Even Josef Haydn, at a time when he was more internationally famous than the emperor he worked for, had other administrative duties. At this time the public never heard Haydn’s music as these orchestras were private and played for very small private gatherings. It can be said that for both string and wind players about 66% of the time they were playing entertainment music, in the form of dinner music, background music, etc.
After the Napoleonic Wars music became public and bands were playing outdoor concerts of aesthetic music, including arrangements of Beethoven symphonies, before thousands of listeners. By mid-century the modern repertoire orchestras were formed and they logically took over the Beethoven symphonies, etc. Band conductors, who were now addicted to those large audiences turned to popular music in an attempt to keep the people coming. The libraries of Europe are also filled with thousands of galops, marches, waltzes and schottisches for orchestra, but the orchestra conductors, unlike their band colleagues, performed very few of these.
But the lure of popularity attracted great composers as well as the band directors. Schumann, after a visit to Vienna, wrote,
The same thing has been said, with the same result, of a hundred other Viennese composers. They want one thing, yet cannot give up the other. They want to be artists, and yet please the crowd. Boundless failures in this endeavor have not yet opened their eyes to the fact that nothing can be attained on such a path. Only one path leads to an artistic end and to reach that we must fulfill our duty to ourselves and to art.“Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik,” 1842
By the dawn of the twentieth century the band was thought of as an entertainment medium. Sousa, in his own autobiography, carefully explained that his intent was to entertain the public, while the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, playing the same repertoire, hoped to enlighten his audience. No one objected to this entertainment at a time before movies, radio and television for it brought quality entertainment to many small towns who otherwise had no opportunity to hear live music. Once the movies and radio appeared all the touring professional bands disappeared for they could not compete with the new media.
And yet, here we are today with some band directors wanting to entertain the public at a time when the public has access to 500 TV channels, sport events of all kinds, pop music recordings and live appearances without number. It is inexplicable to me, in view of this deluge of entertainment choices, that public high schools and universities conclude that part of their mission is to use public funds to entertain the public.
A second psychological issue reflected in the band’s repertoire which has greatly impacted the view of our profession by other musicians and the public as well is that, unlike other mediums, we appear to have no repertoire and you can’t be a legitimate aesthetic musical medium with no repertoire. You can’t convince the public you have a repertoire if all you play is new music. Actually, we do have a very large repertoire of interesting and musical works and they are our best resource for variety in programming, not entertainment music. Interestingly enough the Los Angeles Philharmonic has performed the Mendelssohn Overture for Band, and that is what they called it in the program. But will any college band director perform this work this year? For those interested in quality earlier original band music, I recommend a new site dedicated to quality band music, Maxime’s Music.
Of course, I think it important to perform new works and when I was at Northridge I did my share, with more than 40 premieres. But I hear a lot of new works these days which are not worth public performance, that is they are not high level aesthetic contributions with the ability to move the emotions of the listener. Their sole claim for performance seems to be merely that they are new. It has always seemed odd to me that a composer thinks just because he has written a new major work the world owes him a performance. A clarinet player who has devoted months to learning a new concerto does not feel the world owes him a live orchestral performance.
At Northridge I had a standing offer to anyone that if they brought me a score and corrected set of parts for a new work I would do a recorded reading to give them, but I made clear that I alone would determine if and when a public performance was warranted. The most difficult cases were those of student composers with their Master Degree compositions, works approved by the faculty. I would read them, but when I had to say I was sorry I could not do a public performance, I usually was rewarded by a major fit.
Conductors, repeat after me, “Not all scores are worth performing!”