I recently attended a performance of one of Antonin Reicha’s wind quintets – there are 24 of them. The number of the one I heard was not given. It was a competent work devoid of genius. Reicha (1770-1836) was born the same year as Beethoven and went to the same high school. They became friends. The friendship was renewed during Reicha’s years in Vienna. He eventually settled in Paris where he taught at the Conservatoire. Among his pupils, all of whom thought highly of him, were Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, and César Franck. In addition to being a distinguished pedagogue, he was also an advanced musical theorist.
When it came to the technique of music, Reicha knew as much as any of his contemporaries, including Beethoven. So why is Beethoven’s music great and Reicha’s mostly forgotten, though some of it is quite respectable? The following speculations are intended to pertain only to western classical music and opera. Even if they have any utility here, they may not relate to other art forms – western or otherwise.
Great music is 99+% technique, with the + approaching the limit of 100, but not reaching it. It is this tiny fraction that defines genius. But what is it? What is great music? It attracts an audience, even if like Mahler’s it takes a while. It then maintains an audience. Verdi’s dictum that the only critic that counts pertains here, allowing that we’re considering the audience over the long term. Thus, while I think Shostakovich is a truly great composer, he’s been dead only for a little more than four decades. So like Chou En-Lai’s thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution – it’s too soon to tell.
You can learn virtually any aspect of musical construction and composition, but no one can teach you how to write a great melody. You can do it or you can’t; it’s a gift whose source is as mysterious as the origin of human consciousness. Which I believe is the judge of musical worth.
I think the brain is hardwired for beauty and that the ability to activate this esthetic center determines our response to music. Furthermore, western music turns it on to an almost infinitely greater amount than music of other cultures. Western music is popular throughout the world. The music of other cultures, by contrast, is a specialty taste in the western world.
Consider Japan. The country has 1600 amateur and professional orchestras. Tokyo has half of them. The city has eight major symphony orchestras. The country has not abandoned its own culture, rather it has passionately embraced western orchestral music. The new Opera House of Japan is a part of a world class theater which presents the same works by Verdi and Puccini that you would find in opera houses throughout Europe and the Americas.
There are more than 70 symphonic orchestras in China and the number is rapidly increasing. New opera houses are appearing in China. The Guangzhou Opera House was rated as one of the world’s top ten by USA Today. The Symphony Orchestra of India celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016. Beethoven, Verdi, et al take root wherever they’re planted.
You are a great composer if after thoroughly mastering your craft you can activate the brain’s sensor for beauty, order, and power. Of course this is all speculation as I have no idea where this neuronal location is or whether it’s even real. But how else to explain the universal reaction to the first four notes of Beethoven’s C min Symphony? This titanic work shows that musical greatness includes more than the ability to write a good tune. There are other ways to tap into the brain’s esthetic center. Beethoven and Bach could get there by the organization and complexity of their music. But again, there are lots of complex music that leaves the listener unmoved.
If you try to analyze a great piece of music from the score under the guidance of a skilled musician he will explain the harmonic structure of the work, the relationship of its themes, the sophisticated development sections, and the various other advanced techniques used by the composer. But at the end of all this, you still will not have a satisfactory explanation of why the C min Symphony is surpassed by no other work in the genre or is equaled by the barest handful of symphonies most of which are by Beethoven. Nor will you be able to explain why the opening four notes below (from Liszt’s piano
transcription) are so powerful and why they evoke such an emotional response in virtually every listener. The only answer I can come up with is that after Beethoven had achieved total fluency in the language of music, a fluency he shared with countless others, his music went straight to the brain center that determines excellence. His ability to do this was innate, but it first required the fluency just mentioned.
Consider Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870). He was born between the births of Rossini and Donizetti and lived well into the prime of Verdi. He was a very accomplished composer whose operas pioneered many of the techniques that Verdi later used to great effect. Rossini thought highly of him. Mercadante’s operas had considerable success for a while, but have largely disappeared. Why does everyone still want to hear La Traviata more than a century and a half after its premiere while Il giuramento is a rarity? The former resonates within almost all while the latter has little to say to the general public. The difference is the distinction between genius and competence.
The nature of genius is a mystery. Like the Supreme Court in a different context, we know it when we see it even if we can’t define it. My explanation of why it is universally recognized is a feeble attempt, but it works about as well as any other explanation. What about lesser composers? My reasoning would posit that they come close to the center of excellence recognition, but only occasionally hit it dead center. A similar explanation works for the one hit wonders.
Finally, one can only marvel at the West’s current assessment of its own achievements, or at least those of its forbearers. Having come up with music, art, and technology that the rest of the world prizes as much, or even more, than its native culture, the children of Beethoven and Verdi express disdain for their heritage which seems rooted in unearned guilt. It may well prove that the future of the West lies to the East.