No more masterpieces please

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden is giving the UK premiere of Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt on Tuesday January 27th. This is wonderful music that richly deserves this London staging. Die tote Stadt is certainly in a very different league to John Foulds' World Requiem. But I just hope that the opera doesn't fall victim to promotional overkill in the way that Foulds' minorpiece did. The Covent Garden website is billing the opera as a 'rediscovered masterpiece'. This theme has been breathlessly taken up by BBC Radio 3, who, coincidentally, has the broadcast rights. I'll overlook the 'rediscovered' being applied in 2009 to a work that has been in and out of the record catalogue and opera houses over the years. But do you remember the days when geniuses like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart wrote masterpieces, and there was also a lot of other good (and not so good) music? Good music is no longer enough for today's hyperbole hungry media. Masterpiece is now the lowest common denominator. Recently I heard a BBC Radio 3 presenter describe the Brahms German Requiem as a 'major masterpiece'. I hold my hands up as guilty of over-using the word 'masterpiece' in the past. But, from now on, I will try to avoid the word unless it is describing the work of a true genius. Otherwise let's enjoy the good music, including Korngold's ravishing opera. My header is a reworking of an image from my 2008 article, which gives the background to Die tote Stadt.

Image (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Chris Foley said…
Why is the masterpiece phenomenon so specific to classical music? Could you imagine how foolish someone would sound if they said the following:

"Angels in America has some topical interest, but it's no Hamlet"

"Vladimir Nabokov's novels are somewhat interesting but a bit on the modern side--I much prefer the novels of Sir Walter Scott"

"I don't know what all the fuss is about this Picasso. Why can't people enjoy proper artists like Rembrandt?"

"Schindler's List has a message but it's much too revolutionary for me. Why don't they make films the way they used to, like Gone With The Wind?"

Comparing the new music directly to works written several hundred years ago is a fruitless proposition. Yet in the opera world, people diss perfectly good operas all the time in stating their preference for operas out of a completely different time, place, and tradition.

Why can't the classical music world (most specifically the traditional opera lover) celebrate new work the way that the film, literary, art, and theater world celebrate new work: as works that exist alongside those of the traditions that came before them, but need to be appreciated on their own merits?
Halldor said…
Pliable, you make an important point. Speaking as a devoted Korngoldian, I can accept that he's not absolutely up there - and, more to the point, that exaggerated claims for his music do it more harm than good. Die Tote Stadt is no Elektra, Wozzeck or Grimes. But isn't it at least, on a par with Arabella, La Fanciulla del West, or Candide - non-masterpieces that are deeply worth hearing, and indeed are heard reasonably regularly?

I sense passions starting to simmer over this forthcoming ROH production - and it's seeming more and more likely that the actual merits of the work (and production) are going to be obscured as both sides take up dogmatic positions - kamikaze Korngoldistas versus our critical Establishment. Four thoughts as to why cases are being overstated (to some extent, the same goes for Foulds):

- commercial reality; promoters trying to fill seats for an utterly unknown work by an obscure composer in a large venue (eg the RAH for Foulds) have a great deal of persuading to do. Hence "masterpiece".

- diehard Korngold fans tend, by our nature, to be a rather emotive bunch; our first encounter with his music has often been an immediate, visceral reaction to music that we've encountered by accident on radio or film (there hasn't been much chance in the concert hall!). Whatever its technical merits, or historical significance, it's music that's intensely alive - to borrow Elgar's words, if you cut it, it'd bleed. We've been waiting a very long time to hear Die Tote Stadt in the UK, and emotions are running high.

- arguably, no composer of Korngold's stature and acclaim (before WW2, at least), has been quite so comprehensively written out of musical history. The Korngold revival has always had about it something of a crusade - a perceived righting of an historical wrong. When an RVW opera is revived and judged unsuccessful, his reputation can take it. Korngold's reputation is currently more fragile - and it's been hard-won. Again, emotions run high.

- there's a distinct impression afoot that several leading UK critics have already made up their mind about both the opera and its production (just see today's Guardian Guide!). One gets the sense of an unspoken critical consensus - a unwillingness to assess the music on its own terms. Surely we've moved beyond automatic dismissal of any composer who falls outside of the dominant historical narrative? I hope, of course, that next week we'll get reviews (whether positive or negative) that tell us something meaningful about the work and its performance; somehow I fear that the words "outdated", "second hand" and, inevitably, "Hollywood" will get quite a few outings. Let's see.

Thanks for letting me ramble like this!

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