Monday, August 18, 2008

Classical Economics

As I mentioned in an update to my Value Judgments post, I just ran across an early August NY Times article (found via Thoughtlights) which suggests that significant artworks can be usefully ranked according to how often they're pictured in art history texts. I enjoyed reading it because it backs up my totally unsupported assertion that art historians/critics don't like admitting that markets play a big role in how artistic value is perceived. Quoth David Galenson, subject of the Times piece, "Quantification has been almost totally absent from art history. Art historians hate markets.”

I don't know if Galenson's right or not, since I've admitted that art's not really my thing, but I'm intrigued by the implications of this theory for the classical music canon. I've been meaning to post for awhile about the unofficial "Music History Anthology" canon, an odd assemblage which (like Galenson's list) has a tendency to emphasize a few composers who are especially known for one or two works. For example, my completely unscientifically gathered experience suggests that "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is perhaps the most inevitable work to show up in history and theory anthologies, partly because of that easy-to-illustrate ground bass structure. (I mentioned this here.) It's ironic that it often stands in as THE Baroque opera aria, since D&A is an unconventional little mini-opera, and Purcell isn't otherwise known as an opera composer. Anyway, it's not that the generally underrated Purcell is really a one-hit wonder, but in canonical terms, he is.

Galenson's #1 is Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is interesting because one could argue that the #1 musical icon is Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps; neither Picasso nor Stravinsky would by any means be considered a one-hit wonder, and they probably stand as the most acclaimed artist and composer of the 20th century, so there's a nice symmetry there. Along with The Rite and Dido's Lament, I'd guess that Schubert's Erlkönig, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique are the other virtually unavoidable works for the music student. Certainly none of those composers are one-hit wonders either, although Berlioz probably comes closest in the public's estimation. I don't think the big three of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart can be pinned down to one inevitable work; the Eroica may come the closest. I'd say the same for Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Ives, Bartok, and everyone else I've forgotten.

Other one-hit wonders that come immediately to mind are Monteverdi's Orfeo, maybe Josquin's Ave Maria, Smetana's The Moldau, and Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, although Schoenberg doesn't usually get the one-hit treatment - it's usually Pierrot plus one. A case could also be made for Rossini's Una voce poco fa, Mendelssohn's Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream and Copland's Appalachian Spring. By the way, I don't feel overexposed to any of these works; they're all canon-worthy (yeah, yeah, my conception of canon-worthy is significantly defined by these works). The one work I've run across more than I'd like would be Schütz 's Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? I'd rather hear my daughters' Disney Princess CD 12 times in a row before sitting through Saul, Saul again.

There's much more to say about this, and obviously my list has been biased by the textbooks/anthologies I've used the most, but Galenson is certainly right that we can learn something from this kind of quantitive analysis, even if my analysis is much more the result of intuition than research. Who does research in August? For now, you can draw your own conclusions, or suggest canon staples I've left off the list.

UPDATE: By the way, I do realize that Galenson is mainly talking about 20th century art, so my extension of this idea back through music history is obviously something of a departure from what he's doing. Part of his point is that "only in the 20th century did art enter the marketplace and become a commodity." A more controversial point, perhaps, is his assertion that "breaking the rules became the most valued attribute. The greatest rewards went to conceptual innovators who frequently changed styles and invented genres. For the first time the idea behind the work of art became more important than the physical object itself." Back when I taught a general arts lecture course, I used to talk a lot about this same phenomenon, which I referred to as "capitalist values invading the art world," the great irony being that the typical artworld ideology is hardly capitalist in the political sense. It's nice to see this idea fleshed out by an actual economist.


Fusedule Tecil said...


Careful with the phrase "One hit wonder." That phrase is legitimately used for singers like Jim Croce (Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown) and Don McLean (American Pie). But to call Monteverdi, Copland and all the rest "one hit wonders" - even with all ofyour qualifications - is not cool. Or correct. Or honest. It serves to perpetuate untruth.

Now, those composers may have had their entire output reduced to a single piece in third rate "musica appreciation" texts. But that does not diminish their importance and influence, which goes far beyond their single piece represented in certain texts. I would stay away from the misrepresentation of the canon as having the ability to confer "one hit wonder" status. As we know with the way the academy represents "contemporary music," its assessments are often, if not usually, politically charged and biased in the extreme.

I would seriously question your assumptions of the assignment of certain pieces to various composers as being their "canonical" entry. The "canon" is not defined by the Academy. It is defined by informed opinion over time - not simply seen through a particular set of eyes in a particular time. Chateaubriand's "The Genius of Christianity" may not be on college reading lists today (in fact, it isn't even in print in English), but that does not diminish its importance as a tremendous apologetic.

[An aside: won't you have fun when your children get to high school, and you learn that they will never read a classic, probably won't read a Shakespeare play, won't learn the dates of the American Civil War (although they'll be able to tell you how slaves "felt") and contemporary literature is all their teachers want them to write about - literature that is miserable and depressing, fraught with sexual dysfunction, abuse, twisted gender issues, depression, psychosis and worse. Feminist, black and queer theory are all the rage in our public schools and often even more so in some private schools. Welcome to the "Academy."]

And please don't perpetuate the ignorant comment that Berlioz may be closest to being perceived as a TRUE "one hit wonder" in the public's estimation. Those days are LONG past. Public ignorance does not confer that status to any composer. The rap against Berlioz is the result of un-informed comments being said often enough that people believe a lie is true. Of course, most college graduates don't have the patience to get through a page of Barzun, but that is their fault, not Berlioz's (or Barzun's).

A case could be made that Schubert is better known for his "Ave Maria" than the "Erlkönig" (most people have been to more weddings than bad vocal recitals). And those that don't know "Ave Maria" would probably think that Schubert is a "no hit wonder." But that doesn't make it true.

Words have meaning.

-Fusedule Tecil

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks for this post, which deals with a topic I also find very interesting. A few more examples: Palestrina always means the Missa Papae Marcelli, Messiaen always means the first movement of the Quatuor, and every history survey class will study "Sumer is icumen in", The Beggar's Opera and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Myself I think your point about certain pieces being easier to analyse (ex: the ground bass in Dido's Lament) plays the largest role in determining these selections. A piece that illustrates a single technique in an extremely clear way is easier to teach than a piece which includes a variety of different techniques. Which is why, both times I studied La Traviata in history survey classes, the excerpt was a boring duet from the middle of the opera - it had no excessive musical interest to distract from a textbook example of a nineteenth-century opera duet.

Sometimes, however, selections in history anthologies just floor me. Both the Norton history textbooks currently use a suite by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre as the example of a baroque dance suite, and the only redeeming quality of the piece is its relatively short duration. After a while, you'd give anything to hear a Bach partita instead.



Obviously I think you're overreacting to what I'm suggesting. Galenson's point, onto which I'm piggybacking, is that it does make a difference (and reveal important cultural values) to see which works get the most attention - and, especially, to see which works are viewed as breakthroughs, because that gives such works special status. The Schubert, Berlioz, and Debussy works that I cited all fall into that category, fairly or not. I wasn't talking about which works are best known to the general public, but rather which tend to be taught as pivotal. Pachelbel's Canon, after all, is more well-known than just about any of these pieces. I like the Pachelbel, by the way, but it certainly doesn't qualify as pivotal. It's true that Berlioz wrote much more than the Symphonie fantastique; my point is that I don't remember ever seeing anything but Symphonie fantastique in a history anthology, and so that work has acquired a special landmark status, at least within the Academy. And it's just silly to suggest that the Academy doesn't play an important role in helping to shape the canon.

I was using the one-hit wonder term lightly and more in jest than anything, and certainly don't think any of those composers just got lucky once. In fact, even just looking at history anthologies, I've seen Monteverdi, Mendelssohn, and Copland all represented by more than just the works I mentioned; my main purpose there was to list some of the works that show up again and again, a sort of "Greatest Hits of Music History Class."

On the other hand, certain works inevitably get more attention than others, and it's interesting to think about why that is and what influence it has. If memory serves, just about every time I've been handed a score packet for analysis on some sort of entry/comprehensive exam, "Dido's Lament" has shown up, sometimes I think just with the idea that everyone should be able to handle that one.

Osbert, I feel your pain about the Jacquet de la Guerre suite, although I do find that a fun name to say in class. Obviously there's some affirmative action at play there, and I don't necessarily think that's always a bad thing (big topic I DON'T want to pursue further right now), but I'm not sure studying that suite helps anyone. I also find the NAWM choices for Bach and Handel disappointing, and I always do a lot of supplementing there. (I suspect the editors intentionally avoid the best known works of Bach and Handel with the assumption that many students will know such works, but I don't think "O Fatal Consequence of Rage" can hold a candle to the "Israel in Egypt" choruses, and I find both Bach organ works to be unusual choices, given the possibilities. (Maybe as an organist, you feel differently?)

Fusedule Tecil said...

It must also be said that the fact that so many third-rate music appreciation books seem to choose the "same pieces" that define a composer's "one hit wonder canon" is due, simply, to laziness. Osbert Parsley's comment about the "simple" piece being more likely to be an example may be true with the broad stroke, but while "Dido's Lament" may be so obvious a ground bass as to make its point in an instant (and a beautiful point it is), the finale of the Brahms Sym 4 would be a more enlightened choice as it would allow for discussion of more than simply the passacaglia form.

Again, the game to play is to put a group of 100 people in a room: 50 trained musicians and 50 people who simply have a liberal arts bachelor degree. Have each sit at a table and name the first piece that comes to mind when 10 different composers are mentioned. Want to bet that out of the 100 people, you get more than 25 different answers? And then to figure out WHY? Did they mention "Symphonie fantastique" when they heard Berlioz's name because it was the ONE piece they came across in the music appreciation class, or did they mention it because they believed that more than being a "signature" work of the composer, it was, in fact, a "signature" work for 19th century romanticism.

Another question: why does Norton use a Suite by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre? Because her music is "great" and can make various points because they are so obvious? I doubt it. More likely Norton is trying to be too clever by half by taking an obscure, infrequently performed female composer and letting gender studies do its work: she can do just as good as a man, don't you fellows know!

Well, not really...

-Fusedule Tecil

Fusedule Tecil said...


Nope. Not over reacting. Just noting that the Academy is blinded and often lazy when they define the same works over and over again as being "pivotal."

Lists of "Top 10" anything have a way of demeaning themselves, especially when it comes to art. We are, after all, talking about a combination of objective and very subjective criteria that are applied to works, and we do need to consider the implications of "going along with it" vs standing tall, finger in the dyke, and shouting, "NO, THE PACHElBEL CANON IS NOT GREAT MUSIC (even though I like it) AND HE WROTE BETTER: PLEASE DON'T DEFINE PACHElBEL DOWN BY THINKING FOR AN INSTANT THAT THE PACHElBEL CANON REPRESENTS HIS OEUVRE!!!"

-Fusedule Tecil

Osbert Parsley said...

The Bach organ works in NAWM aren't bad choices in my opinion, especially the A minor P&F - a solid, frequently performed favourite. I am less enthusiastic about "Durch Adams Fall" - I would love to see something like "O Mensch, bewein", "Christ, unser Herrn, zum Jordan kam", or even the BWV 659 setting of "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" instead. What really bothers me about the organ music in NAWM, however, is the recording selections. The Bach chorale prelude is played by Wolfgang Rubsam, in his old Philips recordings - which are widely known for their bizarre registrations and eccentric tempi. The Buxtehude praeludium is performed by Harald Vogel, who represents an outdated and extremely austere style of HIP performance. I found it difficult to listen to either recording, because they were so different from contemporary tastes.


Well, yes, to some degree the repetition of these pieces from anthology to anthology is something between tradition and laziness; I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or not, as there's something useful about developing a little core "analysis" repertoire, just to provide a common point of reference. Again, "Dido's Lament" is probably the best example of a work that's taken on a life of its own in this way - it really does seem unavoidable. I've used the Brahms you mention for the very reason you cite, and often to build on what was learned from the Purcell, but the Brahms obviously requires more time and more sophistication to follow. There are many songs and choral works of Purcell that I'd love to teach, but I almost feel an obligation to provide the "Dido Experience." Fortunately, it's a richly rewarding work, with lots of subtleties that go beyond the repeating ground bass.

Erlkonig is even more striking because Schubert wrote so much extraordinary music in so many genres, but other than a few other songs or maybe some of the "Unfinished," I don't remember seeing much else in the anthologies. It's probably a combination of the "heavenly length" problem and, as Osbert astutely suggested, the fact that the overt drama of Erlkonig is easy to teach. (That's not a bad reason to include it.) Oh, wait, those "Trout" variations do show up sometimes - I must have blocked that out because they fall pretty low in my Schubert pantheon. Again, though, the variations are easy to teach. Erlkonig isn't really even all that representative of Schubert's art songs, but it's a handy way to talk about Early Romanticism, the development of lieder, and a pianist's worst nightmare! (Maybe not every teacher emphasizes that last one, but Erlkonig can be a PTSD experience for the likes of me.)

Wow, there are more comments coming in. Yes, Osbert, I agree that the NAWM Bach organ recordings are big part of the problem. In general, I think there are lots of WTC pairs that work more easily for my students than that big P&F, but that may be a pianist's bias.

Pachelbel's Canon is an interesting situation; in practical terms, it definitely qualifies Pachelbel as a one-hit wonder, which might seem to undermine our appreciation of him. On the other hand, there's a reasonable chance that, over time, his other works will get much more exposure than they otherwise would have due to the out-of-control Canon Phenomenon. I usually bring a couple of the chorale preludes into my classes, partly because I know the students will be intriqued to know there's something else by Pachelbel. And the Canon turns out to be a useful teaching piece (ground bass and easy-to-follow counterpoint!) that is all the more successful as such because the students already know it. One of the most common problems in teaching any history/appreciation classes is trying to talk about music that the students haven't bothered to get to know yet; at least with Pachelbel, they can hardly have avoided it.

Fusedule Tecil said...

A thought:

These music appreciation classes that are being spoken of (I have never taken one) - I wonder if they end up doing more harm than good. Like the public schools, that require X hours of instructional time, "teaching for high stakes testing," could it be that the restrictions/constrictions of the semester and the desire/demand to cover such a large number of composers, each "represented" by a single work, doesn't end up doing a grave disservice to the composers who are reduced to "one hit wonder status." Could it be that in an effort to impart information that should/could/might lead to a life-long "appreciation" of classical music, ends up putting its Masters in little boxes, never to be seen and heard of again?

If a teacher took You - MM - as a performer - and chose one performance by which to represent you, would you be pleased or outraged at the excercise? Would you not protest - valiantly - that it is not possible to do your performing career any justice at all by trying to boil your years down to a single performance of a single work?

Berlioz, for instance. The "Symphonie fantastique" is marvelous for the reasons we know. But what of Berlioz the writer, the critic, his relationship with his wives - and his true beloved that he only came to know at the end of his life. "Lelio" is rarely performed but may tell us more of Berlioz than the "Symphonie." Radical orchestration didn't occur in the "Symphonie" but even more so in the "Messe solennelle" (he wrote for a buccin). The "idee fixe" leads to an interesting discussion, but what of Berlioz's "Memoires" in which he talks about the state of orchestras he encountered on his tours to Germany and Russia, and the indignity of having to re-write his music for concerts because the orchestras didn't have the right players? Put ones' self in his shoes for a moment and you have more than a few evenings of thoughts to consider.

Mahler? How to boil him down to a "one hit." Third movement of the First Symphony (well, you could discuss "the round")? Finale of the Second? The tortured tenor horn solo at the beginning of the Seventh? Everyone will answer differently (see my post above about the 100 people in a room...). Volume 4 of Henry Louis de la Grange's biography of Mahler is over 1700 pages. Hard to hold in your lap. How do you put 7000+ pages of biography into a single work of "appreciation"? Tenth Symphony, perhaps? "O Gott! O Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen!"? My guess is that today's early 20-somethings might resonate more deeply with betrayal behind, "Für dich leben! Für dich sterben! Almschi!" in the 10th than with the bits trotted out on the CD, "Mahler's Greatest Hits." But that takes time. And it is the rare teacher who can have the courage - and it does take courage - to invest such time in things that are TRULY consequential.

I wonder if the true measure of the man is diminished by having to use a single class period (or two) devoted to a single work, with hopes that students will delve more deeply into your "further listening" list (I presume you have such a thing).

Of course "Dido's Lament" can be appreciated on its own. But the whole opera is only about 60 minutes long. Can the "Lament" truly be appreciated without the scene of betrayal that precedes it? And what of the contrast between Purcell and Berlioz, who both set the same story? Having heard Anne Sophie von Otter sing both the Purcell and the Berlioz (and she is a woman possessed, thoroughly into her character), I think I have have an appreciation for either that is greater than it would had been if I had only been introduced to one or the other. For what is of more important, lasting value: the ground bass or the conflict between duty (Aeneas) and perceived betrayal (Dido)? What might actually have the stronger life-long impact?

Would time not be better spent in the manner of Barzun's teaching, exemplified by his magnum opus, "From Dawn to Decadence"? Whereby it is not a single work that is studied, but the natural leading of events is followed, often to unexpected places.

Unfortunately, we cannot make assumptions about knowledge any more. When the "London Illustrated News", in an late 19th century article devoted to a player of a monstrous instrument, opened with the quotation, "Bring me a hundred reeds for my capacious mouth..." with no attribution, it was because no attribution was needed. It was assumed - and likely assumed quite properly - that the reader knew the quotation was about the giant Polyphemus, from Handel's "Acis and Galatea." Alas, we cannot make those assumptions today, as they would be greeted by, "Huh?"

Again, the reduction of art to "Greatest Hits Lists" that have a bleeding chunk of this and that, devoid of context, would seem, to me, to perhaps do more harm than good. Well intentioned, perhaps. But possibly harmful. At least when discussing art.


-Fusedule Tecil