Don’t expect it to get any better

I was rehearsing the first Shostakovich Piano Concerto yesterday, and it occurred to me that we tend to think of composers careers in a rather naïve way. Almost invariably, we tend to hear about composers “developing” or even “improving” throughout their careers, but I would actually suggest that many composers don’t improve or develop once they find their own voice.

Mozart is an interesting example of a composer whose improvement is well-documented. Because he was so famous as prodigy performer, all his juvenilia was published, which means we have a great mass of early works which are not as polished or sophisticated as his later music.

However, a composer like Beethoven seemed to arrive on the scene as a fully finished and developed creative artist. His three op. 1 Piano Trios are as perfect as anything he ever wrote. He carefully chose them as his introduction to the world- he wanted to announce himself as the most important composer of his day, and he did.  Much as his style evolved and changed over the years, his level of accomplishment didn’t- he started as a master and stayed a master.

Likewise Shostakovich. His First Symphony, written in his teens, is as brilliant as anything in his output. The piano concerto we’re playing this week was written in 1933, before he’d begun to have problems with Stalin and the state, and yet the second movement is as anguished as anything he ever wrote. Too often, we tend to hear moments in Shostakovich’s output described as saying “I’m very sad because Stalin was mean to me and killed all my friends,” but I think that’s oversimplifying. Shostakovich’s early music is not only incredibly accomplished technically, but also has as much depth of feeling and as enormous a range of emotion as anything he would write later. Some of that pain obviously came from who he was, not just what happened to him.

Brahms- perfect from day one. Likewise Schumann. Schubert took a long time to figure things out. Mendelssohn- he was a thousand times the prodigy Mozart was, his early works like the Octet, Midsummer Nights Dream Overture and the early quartets are as good as music gets. Again, his early works are not just technically stunning, they’re deeply moving. Dvoark was an improver, but not as much of an improver as most people think- there are some great earlier pieces out there, it’s not just the New World Symphony and the American quartet that are worth listening to. Mahler 1 may not carry the spiritual baggage of the 9th, but it is just as masterfully crafted, something he himself pointed out to friends. He started his creative life as a completely finished creative artist.

This is worth pointing out because too often, we overlook early works, but it’s not as if Haydn needed 103 symphonies to work at his craft before he wrote the 104th. Beethoven’s first piano trio is as good as the last one. The first two symphonies are just as good as the others. 

What you can hear in Beethoven over the course of his life is not an acquisition of new skills, but the evolution of his personality as shaped by hardship and suffering. What makes the late quartets and sonatas so amazing is not their brilliance, because he was always brilliant, but the rarified emotional worlds they take us too. On the other han, Schubert’s technical evolution was an outgrowth of his reaction to his illness. As he sought to express deeper and more painful truths in his music, he needed to develop new technical tools. Shostakovich, Beethoven and Mahler all started with all the tools fully in place, which is why their early works are so powerful. And in all three cases, there are always early works that even seem to anticipate  the unique emotional qualities of their late periods. The slow movement of the second Beethoven piano trio is just as moving as any of the slow movements of the late quartets. It even has that strange sense of being beyond worldly suffering, even though he’d not yet begun to learn to suffer the way he would later. The great failure in the finale of Mahler 1, where the symphony seems on the verge of ending in triumph only to dissipate in nothingness and have to rebuild is an astonishingly mature gesture. It bespeaks an awareness of the difficult and sometimes disappointing shapes of life that you wouldn’t expect a 27-year old to have.Sometimes, you get a sense with certain artists that they express something that has not yet happened- a strange sort of musical foreshadowing. Mahler’s darkest work, the Sixth Symphony was written just before his world began to fall apart, which he was at the pinnacle of his professional and personal life. I often feel the Schoenberg’s final break with tonality was somehow the result of something like a prophetic vision- his music can sound like all the horrors of the 20th Century that were yet to happen. And then there’s the slow movement of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto… Two year later, Shostakovich would fall from favor as the Soviet Union’s most popular and officially respected composer to becoming something like a non-person. Was he somehow sensing his future in this piece? Did he have a vision of the dark world that was just beginning to appear around him? Or was he just a really good composer?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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7 comments on “Don’t expect it to get any better”

  1. Elaine Fine

    I tend to think of Brahms, who you say was perfect from day one, as a person who had very high standards and an active relationship with his wastebasket. He didn’t start writing string quartets until quite late in his life Partly because of the long shadow of Beethoven (who in turn had the long shadows of Mozart and Haydn). I imagine that what we have of brahms is his best music (I can’t think of anything I know by brahms that is possible to make better). Bach, on the other hand, didn’t have time to make mistakes. I imagine that Brahms wished he could have been more like Bach.

    Finding a voice as a composer in the 21st century is a dangerous thing. Some contemporary Visual artists can have successful careers by developing and refining work with certain materials and dealing with subject matter that connects one work with the next. a composer who approaches writing music in that way is destined to bore his or her audience and/or the musicians playing the music, because when a work exists in time it needs to have something new to say.

  2. Zoltan

    On Sunday I heard Mahler’s 1st the first time live in a concert. I heard the work often enough so it couldn’t be the effect of hearing something new, but rather being really involved in the listening, yet it had a profound effect on me. Thus came the same question you wrote about: is it a masterpiece, even if it’s “only” the first symphony? And my answer is yes: I have no idea whether the structure of it cannot be bettered, whether the instrumentation is good enough, whether the finale is too long compared to the first movement or whether the sadness and the humor is too close together in the 3rd movement.
    All I know is, I was moved by the work, and hearing that glorious D major at the end was a truly magnificent moment for me.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    I quite agree with you about Brahms. What’s interesting is that his mentor, Schumann, seemed quite un-intimidated by Beethoven. Brahms spent all those years trying to figure out what one does with the symphony after Beethoven, and Schumann had already done it.

    I love the quote about Bach not having time for mistakes…. Looking ahead to your comment about composing in today’s world, maybe we need to help composers find more reasons to write. It certainly seemed like forced productivity was a good thing for Haydn and Bach.

    Hope all’s well with you


  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hello Zoltan-

    You’ve made a great point, which is that the involvement one brings to listening is so important in being able to appreciate the quality of a piece. Often, whe we don’t respond positively to a work, we ought to ask ourselves, are we listening at a high enough level. Just like life, you get out of listening what you put into it.


  5. Scott Spiegelberg

    i disagree with one thing that Elaine says, that contemporary composers can’t establish a consistent voice successfully. I hold up Eric Ewazen, Joan Tower, and John Harbison as examples of very consistent voices that audiences and performers both love to hear.

  6. Scott Spiegelberg

    Oh, and for a long time the Shostokovich Piano concerto No. 1 was my favorite piece. It was also the first set of trumpet excerpts that I was told I performed at a professional level, so good memories.

  7. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » A week to remember or forget?

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