By Derek Simon
What makes great art? This is a question that thinkers have been pondering ever since civilization’s infancy and I dare not attempt to answer it in less than a page. Instead, I’ll posit what makes a great artist by using, in my opinion, the classical music world’s finest champion: Ludwig van Beethoven.
Of all composers, Beethoven is probably the most well-known. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies but almost none are recognizable to the casual listener. Mozart wrote 41, but the first 20 or so are completely forgettable. Beethoven wrote only nine symphonies but at least two are so famous that even people that have never listened to a piece of classical music have likely heard them: the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (duh-duh-duh-DUH) and the last movement of the Ninth, the Ode to Joy. Beyond that, numerous other pieces of his music are easily recognizable (the Turkish March, Für Elise, and the Moonlight Sonata are examples.) But why is this? Clearly, there’s something universal about Beethoven’s musical idiom, something in the sound he produces that appeals to most humans. Therefore, universality is the first characteristic that I believe defines a truly great artist.
Beethoven completed Symphony No. 5 in C-minor in 1808, and he described it as “fate knocking on the door.” Evidently fate knocks really loud, because we are still hearing those profound opening tones today. Indeed, Beethoven’s symphonies are the most performed pieces of music in history. Clearly the master’s music has staying power and I choose this as the second characteristic that defines a great artist.
Finally, I come to what I believe to be the most important of my three characteristics. Rachmaninoff wrote a ton of popular music that even non-classical music listeners enjoy, but in a sense, they are all the same. Once Rachmaninoff found his voice, his works were confined within that style. The same could be said for Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Mozart’s early works are practically imitations of Haydn’s, never really pushing the boundaries until his later years (to be fair, he did die young). Beethoven started his compositional career by imitating Haydn too (in fact, Beethoven’s first piano sonata is dedicated to him). But, in 1805, Beethoven premiered his massive and powerful “Eroica” Symphony, a work so unlike anything that had come before it, induced the 19th century critics’ version of “WTF?!” Thus, Beethoven entered his Middle Period. From then on, each symphony would be a transformative event, a completely original work. His piano sonatas and string quartets matured and expanded throughout his life as well. In Beethoven’s late period, his most bizarre and jarring works were written. Even today, the Grosse Fugue, Op. 133, sounds as if it could have been written yesterday. I believe that his continual growth and change as an artist is the characteristic that truly makes Beethoven not just great, but a genius.
Now let’s see if these three characteristics can apply to other artists that are considered great. William Shakespeare certainly has more staying power than any other author in history, his themes are so universal that they are relatable today, and everyone, of course, would argue that there is significant growth in style when comparing Hamlet (1600) to Romeo and Juliet (1594). Shakespeare checks out.
In the realm of popular music, The Beatles are widely regarded as of one the greatest bands ever. Their music is certainly widely appealing; almost everyone has heard at least one Beatles song (“Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Hey Jude,” “All You Need is Love,” are some examples). Their music has staying power and is still widely played on the radio and in many forms of media. Finally, their musical style demonstrates remarkable change over time, from the early Rock n’ Roll albums such as “A Hard Day’s Night,” to the psychedelic originality of “Sgt. Pepper” (the Beatle’s equivalent to Beethoven’s Eroica,) to the experimentation of the “White Album.” I think The Beatles are definitely worthy of their reputation.
Great artists that produce great works exist in every creative genre and few are truly extraordinary, but they don’t need to be. Great artists need not be bona fide geniuses to be enjoyable, but those rare gems like Beethoven enrich humanity all the more because they are so few.
The complete Rockefeller concert programs are incomplete, but please note that concerts will be held on February 7 and 21.
February 7: TBA
February 14: Valentine’s Day Concert
Soyeon Kate Lee, piano, http://soyeonkatelee.com/home.html
Ran Dank, piano, http://www.colbertartists.com/ArtistBio.asp?ID=ran-dank
Nelson Lee, violin (Jupiter String Quartet), http://jupiterquartet.com
Livia Sohn, violin, http://liviasohn.com
William Frampton, viola, http://www.williamframpton.com/file/Welcome.html
Tom Kraines, cello (Daedalus String Quartet), http://www.daedalusquartet.com
This romantically themed concert will feature a variety of chamber works for piano and strings. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was best known for his innovative, Romantic-era piano music even though it was his wife Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) was the far superior pianist, though he was virtually unremembered as a composer. Robert and Clara first met as piano students, and as their virtuoso piano skills blossomed, so did their love. They eventually married in 1840. As homage, the Robert Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat (the composer’s most significant chamber work) will be performed with Clara Schumann’s violin pieces interspersed between the movements, symbolically representing the musically and romantically linked couple. Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) is the undisputed master of the Argentine tango, the ultimate couple’s dance, and his “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” for Piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) does not disappoint. Additional pieces will include a work for piano, four hands, which requires the pianists to share the same bench and keyboard, and the lovely third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata.
February 21: TBA
February 28: Boston Brass (brass quintet), http://www.bostonbrass.com/index.php
This acclaimed brass quintet (two trumpets, one French horn, one trombone, and one tuba) has been performing for twenty-seven years and has featured some of the finest brass players in the world, tackling a diverse repertoire including pieces ranging from classical to jazz. Every performance is a unique and exciting experience. They’ve played in a wide range of venues from The CBS Early Show to jazz festivals across the country.