What Makes a Masterpiece

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert What Makes a Masterpiece, performed on Jan 25, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

It is rare that one gets to match wits with a distinguished colleague before the public on a subject, and debate a matter of importance. As a reader of the program notes to tonight’s concert will discover, my good friend David Brodbeck and I do not quite see eye to eye. Therefore tonight may, in retrospect, have the feel of a public debate. It is a pleasure to be part of a controversy in an art form that often appears to be so staid.

After all, tonight’s concert was designed to challenge received wisdom about the merits of musical works, and the criteria by which we judge music. The premise of the concert is one that has been responsible for much of the ASO’s programming over the past two decades. We believe that inherited verdicts of quality are too readily accepted, and that we succumb uncritically to the so-called judgment of history. Is what has been handed down to us as canonical and superior really so, or is the standard concert repertory more of a biased and perhaps lax selection from the past? Could the standards that earn a historical work of music a regular place on today’s concert stage be narrow and even arbitrary, and perhaps reveal a distortion of history?

In order to pursue this challenge, highlight the inadequacy of today’s account of our musical heritage, and expose the poverty of the accepted selection of works from the past which are performed all too frequently in concert life, the ASO has chosen to organize a closely argued experiment in the form of a concert. We will perform three symphonies that exhibit common formal characteristics, share aesthetic premises, and are all in minor keys. All three were either composed or revised in the decade of the 1880s by composers who shared biographical connections and one language in common: German.

The three works on tonight’s program are all properly identified in the notes to this concert written by the eminent scholar, David Brodbeck. He acknowledges the program as being made up of an obscure symphony by and obscure composer, a neglected work by a famous composer, and a famous work by a famous composer.

But there is where the debate begins. Brodbeck offers the accepted judgment of history, and therefore the standard view. Herzogenberg’s symphony is judged the work of an epigone, and little more than a pale reflection of Brahms. Its presumed lack of originality has been the source of its obscurity. Brodbeck deems the work “workmanlike” and “cleanly executed” and therefore “from time to time” worthy of being heard. The Dvořák, even in its revision, is judged a failure, except for the two inner movements. The symphony’s merit seems to rest in the idea that these “better” movements prefigure the “mature” Dvořák we all know and love. In other words, the main reason to tolerate Dvořák’s Fourth Symphony is because of our longstanding attachment to the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies (and possibly Nos. 5 and 6). But is this the best that can be said of the Fourth? What exactly is deficient about it?

Brahms’s Fourth is an acknowledged masterpiece the merit of which Brodbeck rightly knows requires no defense or argument. There is indeed no point or purpose in taking issue with the accepted view of Brahms’s E-minor symphony. But is Brodbeck’s comparative assessment of the weakness of the other two—the standard view in the critical and scholarly literature—justified? How can we locate and challenge the presumed objective criteria that render the account of the supposed shortcomings of the other works valid? That prescriptive notion is precisely what this program, in explicitly juxtaposing these three symphonies, attempts to explode.

For do we always listen, look, or read only in a comparative mode, thinking about experiences with works of art that strike us as better or worse? If that were the case, we could conceivably select one kind of novel, one painting, or one film to enjoy and then disregard all the rest. Rather, we enlarge our experience by understanding that, beyond issues of personal taste, what makes a worthy piece or even a masterpiece are not necessarily some immutable objective attributes, but the shifting discriminations within the passing eras of history. Is Dvořák’s Fourth somehow lesser or not worth hearing because we also have Brahms’s Fourth? Is Dvořák’s Fourth somehow “weak” or not deserving of performance because his Eighth and Ninth symphonies have become more popular?

How does Herzogenberg’s Symphony No. 1 hold up now, more than a century after it was written? Brahms was not generous in his assessment, but during his lifetime, Herzogenberg was considered by many to be a composer of stature, albeit in the orbit of Brahms. What caused the difference in the way we hear both of their symphonies? How do our reactions differ from the way their original audiences heard them? Perhaps we should not be guided by Brahms’s well-known harsh opinions. At the age of 60 he destroyed many of his own works, much to the dismay of his most ardent admirers, including Clara Schumann.

This concert exists because we welcome the opportunity for an audience to come to its own conclusions. Faced with these three comparable works, no one expects our collective opinion about Brahms to change. But perhaps the time has come to revisit a less familiar Dvořák symphony—a powerful and ambitious work—as well as to give the Herzogenberg symphony a second chance.

At issue are our reactions to the way musical time is framed by composers from this historical era. What is the character of their musical materials, what is the manner in which they elaborate them, and how do they choose to construct a musical argument? Given a shared musical grammar and vocabulary, what seems to be at stake for each of these composers? Absent an explicit program or narrative, what do these works tell us about musical meaning and communication at the end of the 19th century—the transaction between composer and listener? How have our expectations regarding tradition and innovation in music changed? What are the continuities and discontinuities in our musical culture? How does the meaning of music change over time?

Such reflections are hard for us to engage in if we only play and listen to a few works that have been repeated so often that they have lost all connection to their historical context. They stand, cut off from their roots, as revered relics burdened by their own extensive performance history and a daunting body of criticism.

By placing these three works side by side we invite audiences to find new ways of thinking about familiar subjects. Dvořák is still known primarily for a few works, and for his reputation as a Czech and quintessentially a voice within the concert repertory suggestive of a particular ethnic folk tradition. Placed alongside Brahms, Dvořák may appear to lack the gravitas we attribute to Brahms, even though Brahms would have recoiled at such a judgment and found it ludicrous. Brahms, after all, volunteered to proofread Dvořák’s works for publication, a singular gesture of respect.

And what shall we make of Heinrich von Herzogenberg, whom we now remember largely on account of his wife? Her famous correspondence and friendship with Brahms (who deeply admired her) provide essential clues to understanding that enigmatic composer. The music in this symphony suggests depth and eloquence. It possesses the capacity to reward both player and listener by offering a touching and memorable encounter with music. Is it possible to see Herzogenberg as an artist of distinction rather than a forgettable epigone?

“Such a conjecture does no harm to the belief that Brahms’s Fourth is an exceptional work. In fact, let us hope that hearing these infrequently performed works tonight alongside an acknowledged masterpiece might just stimulate our curiosity to search out other neglected works from the past, and to anticipate with pleasure the prospect of hearing Dvořák’s Fourth and the music of Herzogenberg again soon.