Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ten Classical Music "Warhorses" I Could Do Without

Every genre's got 'em: works that are familiar to just about everybody who knows anything about that genre. These are the "Warhorses". A list of warhorses doesn't necessarily comprise a list of the very greatest works, but a list of works that a person with an average level of familiarity with the genre will have heard at least once. Science fiction's warhorses might include 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Neuromancer. A classic rock radio station's warhorses will include "Stairway to Heaven", "Hotel California", and the like.

Warhorse pieces, though, can lead to a bit of cynicism on the part of performer and listener alike. For the sophisticated listener, the warhorses can be a bit annoying, taking up program space that might otherwise be used for music that isn't played all that often. Want to hear one of Glazunov's symphonies live? Good luck. But you're never more than a few months away from being able to hear the Eroica again. That's because the Eroica is a warhorse piece: one of those that appeals to people who "love classical music" as long as the classical music they're hearing is classical music they've already heard.

Musicians, on the other hand, can get downright cynical about the warhorses. In my orchestral days in college, nothing made the hearts of the trumpet section sag harder than the appearance of a Beethoven symphony or concerto on the program. Why? It's absolutely glorious music if you're on the listening end, but if you're sitting in the trumpet section, it's music that makes you wish for the sweet embrace of death, so boring is it to play. You sit there for what feels like hours, counting out measures of rests that number on the hundreds before you make your entrance, in which you play the tonic or dominant on the beat. And then it's back to counting rests. Likewise, with the warhorses, familiarity can really breed contempt, especially when you're a lifetime orchestra member and you're about to play the Tchaikovsky Sixth for the thirtieth time in your career.

But anyhow, works become warhorses for various reasons. Some even become warhorses despite their fate of not being terribly interesting works at all. Here are ten of those works from classical music that, for all their "warhorse" status, I just don't like and could happily live the rest of my days never hearing again.

10. Maurice Ravel: Bolero.

God in Heaven, I hate this piece so! And Ravel himself wasn't too fond of it, saying that it contains "very little music". And he's right: it's a terrible, dreadful bore of a piece, droning on endlessly, piling on one repeat of that not-terribly-interesting melody after another. Sure, it's full of stunning orchestral detail. It's also full of dung. (And why is this work always cited for its sensual, sexy qualities? If Bolero is sex, it's the brute force sex of a guy who's going to get his money's worth at the Mustang Ranch, by God!)

(If you must hear Bolero, look for the one conducted by Jean Martinon on the Angel label. He brings forth the orchestral details with amazing clarity.)

9. Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons.

Remember that line in Sleepless in Seattle about the statistic that isn't true but yet it feels true? Same thing about the oft-repeated jibe about Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto five hundred times. No, he didn't; that's not true. But it feels true. For me, listening to different pieces by Vivaldi is like driving down two different street on Buffalo's East Side. Sure, the houses are different, but hey, the rust is all still rust-colored. (Although, again in my college days, we played some Vivaldi piece that included a female chorus. I have no recollection of what the piece was, but my trumpet part was a blast. I still hated the piece, but man, that part was fun to play.)

(I don't recommend owning a recording of The Four Seasons. Nothing good can come of it.)

8. Pachelbel: Canon in D.

What's the most thankless task in classical music? I would guess that it would either be playing the snare drum part in Bolero, or playing the ground bass in Pachelbel's Canon in D. Sure, it's the most famous of all themes-and-variations. It's also as worn out as that box of Arm-and-Hammer baking soda in the back of your fridge, second shelf, behind the jar of wheat germ you bought during your big Health Foods Kick of 2003.

(The only version of the Canon I can listen to anymore is the Canadian Brass version, which isn't, well, canonical anyway. Ha! A pun!)

7. Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture.

OK, you got me: sometimes I like to listen to the last three or four minutes, that last descent from the highest voices to the lowest before that big chorale tune kicks in, each phrase punctuated by some kind of rising bell figure, and then the famous final "Can Can" eruption. The problem with 1812 is that the piece lasts fifteen minutes, most of which consist of repetitions of material already heard six minutes ago. And how about that coda, which goes on and on and on and on and on, never letting the piece out of its cold, dead fingers? Nah. We're almost two hundred years past 1812. Time to get over it.

(Just find one that's really loud, with digital cannons. This isn't a piece that displays the difference between a great conductor or an average one.)

6. Barber, "Adagio for Strings"

It's actually a pretty amazing piece of music by itself, when heard for what it is: a piece of music. Unfortunately, years of use in movies and TV shows as underscore to serious scenes of portentous doom have taken their toll on this work. I'm now at the point where I can't even listen to the thing anymore without thinking of all the various pop-cultural references that the work has accrued. Oh well.

(Leonard Bernstein conducts the LA Philharmonic in an excellent recording of the Adagio, coupled with a scintillating performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring and Bernstein's own Overture to Candide. That's the one to get.)

5. Grofe, "Grand Canyon Suite"

This gets played an awful lot on the classical station in these parts, and it drives me crazy each time. I hate the main motif of the entire work, I hate the hokey Western stuff that sounds like what would happen if some kind of mutant child of Richard Strauss and Aaron Copland were made into a composer. Ugh.

(I don't own a recording of this and I have no intentions of acquiring one, either.)

4. Mozart, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"

Yes, it's Mozart. But it's this piece's opening bars – which are pretty much known by everybody on Earth, even if they can't name the piece – are the main reason, I think, why so many casual music listeners tend to look down on Mozart as a genial composer of snuff-box music that is mainly nice but dull. Ask the random person on the street to hum some Mozart, and if they know any Mozart at all, this is what they'll hum. That's a shame.

(I do own this on disc, but I can't remember who the performers are. I want to say that it's the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, but I'm not sure.)

3. Beethoven, "Pathetique Sonata"

I don't dislike this piece at all; it's just that this is the traditional First Beethoven Sonata of all piano students, so if one takes piano lessons as a kid and attends a couple of recitals each year, then one is guaranteed to sit through this sonata – or at least its first movement – at least ten times by the time one is eighteen. The work can be discovered anew when one listens to a great pianist doing it, say, Alfred Brendel, but it's so oft-used as a training piece for students that listening to it anew requires substantial effort on my part.

(Brendel's the ticket here. He's recorded this more than once, I wager.)

2. Wagner, "Ride of the Valkyries"

I cannot listen to this outside of its original context, in the opera Die Walkure. This is another great bit of music that's been beaten into the ground by years and years of pop-culture. I should note that I have no problem with pop culture, nor do I view the lines between pop culture and "real" culture to be eternally fixed and immutable. In fact, I'm not even sure those lines exist. But pop culture can ruin things on occasion, and for me, "Ride of the Valkyries" is one of those things. And I don't even like the smell of napalm in the morning!

(I strongly recommend Wagner Without Words, the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell, by way of a Wagner excerpts compilation. The performances are great, and the selections are chosen and conducted with great care by Szell. The Ride doesn't suffer as much under his hands, especially in the context of the entire program he creates on the recording.)

1. Holst, "The Planets"

Like everybody, I had my fixation with this piece when I was younger. But I tired of it fairly quickly, and now, it's been over ten years since I listened to the whole thing in one go. Maybe I should try re-evaluating it one of these days, but here's another problem with the local classical station: they tend to do a lot of playing single movements of multi-movement works, at least on their morning program, and "Jupiter" from The Planets is a very common selection. Each time I sit through "Jupiter" while driving to work, I end up saying to myself, "Yeah, I don't need to hear that piece any time soon after all." Yes, it's dramatic music with superb orchestration; yes, it's one of the most influential works for much film music of the twentieth century; yes, it's incredibly popular. But it almost always bores me.

(Get Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony, if you like this piece. That's the recording of it that I have.)

So, what classical music could you all live a perfectly happy life never hearing again?


Charlie said...

As a (former, alas) tubist I must speak out in defense of #8. I used to get a lot of productive work done in brass quintet rehearsals whilst playing Canon. Looking over other pieces of music, reading the Canadian Brass biographies on the back of the book - once on band tour I wandered over to the donut counter while playing and had myself a donut between notes. Never been so glad to play a school horn.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lovely post... i immediately downloaded the version of The Planets you recommended. As a native Montrealer i am a sucker for anything the MSO does. LOL.
I'm enjoying it muchly.

Chip Michael said...

I so disagree. For years I hated Bolero and then I heard it done where the slow build was just beyond imagination. It was amazing!!! - one of the best parts was the skill the snare drummer.

Pachelbel's Canon in D - actually, I can't say would put it in the CD player - but I wouldn't turn it off if it came on. It is, IMHO, the most amazing ground base ever written.

The Planets - I did a paper on this piece last year and gained such a huge respect for it. Although, I don't really like listening to the movements broken up...

- for me... I'd put Moonlight Sonata on the list as pretty much everyone knows about 3 bars of it - which is about all I can handle.

All that said - thanks for the post - interesting commentary.

Tonio Kruger said...

I actually like "The 1812 Overture" although I must admit it's difficult to think of any piece of Tchaikovsky's that is more over-played apart from the "Theme from Romeo and Juliet," which is used so often in comedies it's become a cliché.

For that matter, I'm surprised you mentioned the "Jupiter" piece of "The Planets" and not the far more overplayed "Mars" piece.

And what's this? No mention of the most over-played piece of all--Orff's "O Fortuna"? True, it's no longer used in movies as often as it used to, but it's still been used quite a bit.

Aaron said...

On Pachelbel, I assume you've seen this?

1812 I like. We have a recording of Chicago/Solti doing this one, so that helps...

Mozart... get past the first movement to the andante and I'll stick around.

And Charlie, eeewww... I'm glad I took tuba before you got there.

Patty said...

Franck Symphony in D minor.

Never. Want. To. Play. It. Again.

Of those you mention I'm in agreement with some, but I would never tire of the Mozart nor the Barber, and playing Bolero is a fascinating experience because of the overtones and what our ears tell us. (It can be quite bizarre, really, as it can sound like a different instrument all together at times!) Besides, it uses an oboe d'amore ... gotta love it! :-)

Roger Owen Green said...

I agree with your correspondent that I that I'd never put on Pachebel (or indeed most of your selections), but I wouldn't take it off if I heard it. The Four Seasons, in particular, HAS become cliche.

I went to a live performance of Bolero, having the same reservations - in fact, got free tickets because the person who gave them to me had greater reservations. Yet, it turned out to be fabulous! Maybe it needs to be heard live.

But the Barber Adagio? Still makes me weep at that point of suspension (about 6 minutes into an 8 minute performance). In fact, I have an album of nothing but Barber adagios , done with flute, then horn, then organ, then human voice, etc., that I listen to at least annually. Perhaps I've become blissfully unaware of the pop culture references. I mean, I heard them, but I just can't recall a single one; they didn't stick. I read - in a Billy Joel box set liner notes! - that the Barber adagio was played after FDR died on the radio. It was also one of the favorite pieces of a deceased friend.

Bill the Splut said...

The one piece that makes me change the station: Beethoven's Fifth. At this point, I'd rather hear the disco version. And I hate disco.