Last week, I had a post about “coming to grips with a concerto” (the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor by Prokofiev). At the end—in a P.S., in fact—I posed a question: “What is the worst piece of music ever written by a great composer? Forget the little ditties and asides. What is the worst major piece of music ever written by a great composer?”
I asked readers to e-mail their nominations. They did, and I will provide a sampling.
Do you know why I said, “Forget the little ditties and asides. What is the worst major piece of music ever written by a great composer?” I added that qualification because I wanted to rule out such pieces as Wellington’s Victory—and Wellington’s Victory in particular.
But people went ahead and nominated it anyway. In fact, Wellington’s Victory, by Beethoven, was the most popular nomination by far.
Also, there was this problem: Who’s a great composer?
Anyway, enough of problems and on with our sampling. I will not comment (for the most part) as I go along. Some people nominated works that I consider masterpieces—works that I rank at the very top of art. But I will bite my tongue and simply quote.
Let’s continue with Beethoven. One reader—a distinguished and excellent music critic—nominated Fidelio, the composer’s lone opera. “I rather suspect that it benefits enormously from having the name ‘Beethoven’ attached to it. If the same score had been written by Meyerbeer, say, would it see the light of day?”
Probably, concludes the critic—because of the Prisoner’s Chorus and other parts of the opera.
Someone else nominated Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E flat, Op. 74, known as “the Harp.” Another person named the Kakadu Variations for piano trio. (There’s a rarity.) Several people said the Triple Concerto, with one saying the first movement in particular. And what do you think of the following?
Dear Mr. Nordlinger,
The answer is undoubtedly Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. No, it’s not because of the sanctimonious use of the “Ode to Joy” as a universalist hymn. It’s because the blasted thing is way too long and unwieldy. I agree with Verdi: the first movement is easily the best, the next two are very good, but if only it stopped there. Oh, if only he hadn’t written that blasted final movement with its series of frantic and melodramatic variations on the “Ode to Joy” theme. It is stirring for about thirty seconds, then incredibly tedious for the next twenty minutes.
Have a note from another reader:
I worship the ground Bach walked on, but I have never enjoyed his Orchestral Suites at all (with the notable exception of the Air on the G String). But I’m sure, as George Costanza said, that the problem is not him, it’s me.
Mendelssohn came in for some abuse. A distinguished Italian nominated Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. Another man nominated his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. A teenager from Pennsylvania said, “Hear My Prayer, by Mendelssohn. Too predictable, cheesy, bland. Only interesting part is the soprano solo, but that’s because it’s meant to show off rather than express an idea.”
One reader nominated Brahms’s Double Concerto. Another said, “The Brahms Second Symphony is the worst major piece by a great composer. Even Furtwängler couldn’t convince me this is a truly great work.”
A musician-reader writes,
I hate Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique more than any other piece of classical music. I played it seven or eight times during the few years I gigged. Each time confirmed what I thought the first time I ever heard it: it’s grotesque and hideous.
Another reader said the Dvorak Piano Concerto. (I know what he means—great as Firkusny and other pianists have been in it.) Another said Chopin’s Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano.’ (Yes.) Another said Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. (Yes, yes.)
Speaking of Tchaikovsky, get a load of this:
I cannot stand the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I know audiences love it, I know it’s exciting and all that, but to me it’s just loud. Pointlessly loud. And yes, I get that there’s a supposedly profound reference back to the “fate” motif, but if anything that just makes the insult sting all the more: Tchaikovsky writes an astonishing, terrifying, soul-trying first movement, then gives us the most distressingly beautiful oboe solo in the history of oboes to start the second (the Scherzo I can take or leave), and follows these with a nine-minute Cossack kick-line.
It’s like writing four masterly acts of a classical tragedy and tacking on a pie fight for Act V.
A man says,
My money’s on Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” Romanticism taken to its absolute extreme, an ear-splitting cacophony of too many voices. Collapses under its own weight. May single-handedly have brought the Romantic period to an end.
I loved the below letter, referencing the Shostakovich symphony I mentioned in my post last week:
I met my wife playing the “Leningrad” as a member of the London Shostakovich Orchestra, but even I have to agree with you that it is a dire piece of music. I, at least, got a great marriage out of it.
My vote for the worst piece by a major composer is Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Strauss. It’s really not worth listening to the last half an hour of it. Also, I am probably the only person in the world who doesn’t like the Britten War Requiem. I find it melodramatic and pretentious—but I think your advice to “keep at it” is worthwhile.
I know what he means about that requiem. Also the Strauss tone poem. Speaking of Strauss, I received a vote for his opera The Egyptian Helen. The voter says, “Sorry, Richard. You too, Hugo.” (“Richard” refers to Strauss, “Hugo” to his librettist, Hofmannsthal.)
Stick with opera. I have a friend—a brilliant music critic—who says, “Thaïs, all of it, and especially the Meditation.”
Meditate on that, folks.
A reader suggested the Elgar Violin Concerto. Another says, “I love Sibelius, but I always thought that Finlandia was greatly overrated. Other than the opening, and the famous slow melody, it seems like bombast.”
Several readers damned Boléro, by Ravel. Two readers singled out Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. One of these e-mailed the following:
I need to preface this by saying that, as a horn player, I have seen a lot of music on my stand over the years. Some pieces, I had a low opinion of—and then changed my mind about, after rehearsals and performances. For example, Schelomo, by Bloch.
But there is also a piece I never liked and grew to dislike even more with familiarity, and that is the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. So I would nominate that, except that I don’t consider Debussy a great composer.
One reader nominated two dutiful pieces by Prokofiev—glorifying the Soviet regime: the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution and Zdravitsa, another cantata, written to glorify Stalin on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. “But,” says our reader, “I may object to the subject matter more than to anything else.”
A different reader nominated two Shostakovich symphonies: the Second and the Third. I also had a couple of votes for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
Some readers don’t like twelve-tone music at all, so they nominated works by Schoenberg & Co. Some don’t like Wagner, so they nominated various Wagner operas.
What might I myself say? I don’t know. Let me give you a memory. In Salzburg, I once interviewed Trevor Pinnock, who was conducting, among other works, Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. I said something like, “Not Mozart’s finest hour, huh?” Pinnock did not dispute me. But he said, “You have to admit the loveliness of the middle movement, right?” Yes, right.
The Schumann Cello Concerto has some loveliness in the middle movement too. But the outers . . .
Anyway, I will end this game. Thank you so much for playing. I will give the last word to Beethoven, with whom we started. Readers knocked him for Wellington’s Victory. He was knocked in his, and its, own day, too. Beethoven never stuck up for Wellington’s Victory. He knew it was poor. But he did say, “What I [eject, bodily] is better than anything you could ever think up!”