In praise of the imperfect

Perfection

It’s a powerful word. Can it apply to music? Should it? Even when it does, is it the point? Is perfect music inherently better music?

I don’t think a performance can be perfect. Technically flawless- yes. Magical- yes. Perfect? No. All too often, the price for technical accuracy is too high- a Coke can is, in a technical sense, perfect- flawlessly engineered and manufactured, but it’s not all that interesting. Performance needs risk, and risk sooner or later leads to mistakes- that’s the price we all live with for great music making

A creative work, however, can be perfect. For my money, Brahms is a pretty consistently perfect composer.  I suppose not everyone agrees. I remember a friend in college, a young composer possessed of the certainty of youth, who said “Brahms is a terrible orchestrator. Maybe the worst ever. Everything is so dark and dull- he just didn’t know how to use percussion. A real orchestrator would have used timbers like glockenspiel to double those endless violin melodies and give them some sparkle.”

The mind reels at the idea of the theme of the Finale in Brahms 1 doubled with glockenspiel. I think his orchestration is, well, pretty damn perfect.

Brahms….He never wrote (or at least never published) a bad, uneven or unfinished piece. The early pieces don’t sound like he has anything left to do to become Brahms and the late ones don’t sound like he’s running out of gas. You never find a passage that seems a little short on inspiration or a little weak on craft. Pretty much everything he wrote strikes a flawless balance between emotional engagement and intellectual rigor. You feel like the artistic personality is absolutely defined, but not limited. The four symphonies are, beginning to end, like so much else he wrote, pretty much perfect works.

Actually, there are quite a few perfect pieces of music. Mozart 40 is a perfect piece. Beethoven 7 is perfect.  Mahler 6? Perfect. Bach wrote an awful lot of perfect music. Haydn may have written even more.

But is that the point?

Mozart 41 is not perfect- the seams do show in places. There are predictable moments and moments that sound less-than-inspired. In spite of this, it is arguably an even greater work than the perfect 40th. Beethoven 3 is not perfect- the piece is and always will be top-heavy, with the 3rd and 4th movements bound to feel somehow like a letdown after the first two. Is it a lesser work than the 7th? I don’t think so.

Schumann’s four symphonies are certainly not as perfect as those of Brahms, but I think you can make a strong case that they were way more influential and remain in some ways more compelling.

I recently did a program with Surrey Mozart Players in which one conspicuously perfect work was framed by two works that are as fascinating as they are flawed, or at least problematic.

First up was Beethoven’s complete Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont. Of course, the Overture is about as perfect as pieces get, but putting it at the top of this piece only highlights how problematic the rest of the piece is.

Beethoven never intended this music to stand on its own, and this shows. Some of it is a little paint-by-numbers, some feels a little repetitive while other ideas feel like they don’t get a fair development. It’s actually a little distressing to hear Beethoven tossing about ideas and not developing them properly. Most of all, one can hear how much Beethoven wanted to stay out of the way of the dialogue and the drama. Much of the piece sounds like an accompaniment to a concerto- one in which the soloist never plays.

I said as much to the orchestra. Whatever its flaws, this music is a very personal expression of some of Beethoven’s most fiercely held convictions about liberty, self-sacrifice and freedom. “I know it sounds like a great accompaniment looking for a tune, but you’re really accompanying a metaphysical idea. You’re accompanying Beethoven’s own concept of liberty. The piece could just as easily be about Tahrir Square as 16th C. Flanders. Just as you would cradle a great violin tune in sound in another piece, you’ve got to cradle this idea of freedom here”

It’s a miracle nobody responded to my little speech with the dreaded “so do ya want it louder, or softer?”

Anyway, with people all over the Middle East risking and sacrificing their lives for the same cause Egmont gave his, Egmont felt more important, relevant and powerful than ever. Is it flawed? Of course.  Is it wonderful, moving and essential Beethoven? Damn right it is.

Last up on the concert was another flawed masterpiece, Schubert’s 4th Symphony, the “Tragic.” Written when he was still a teenager, it’s really fascinating. On first acquaintance, it’s almost too easy to see it as a document of a great talent still finding his identity and building his toolbox. In places you can see, plain as day, the Schubert of the Cello Quintet, Wintereise and the Unfinished Symphony, but sometimes when the piece is at its most radical, he pulls back to something more conventional. It’s almost as if he still felt like he had a teacher looking over his shoulder.  In other places, you feel like he is trying to express something but hasn’t found the tools to do it- a wild idea comes along he can’t quite develop, or he gets to a corner where he finds himself stuck so just jumps back to safer ground.

Still, I LOVE the piece. The more I live with it, the more I realize he’s farther along in it than I realized at first. Yes, the seams show, and there are awkward moments and unfulfilled promises, but there is so much in it that is so convincing. You really feel like he is totally unafraid of going in his own direction- he’s not trying to write a Beethoven symphony with all that linear drama, nor imitate Haydn or Mozart. Only Schubert could have written it. In the end, maybe it isn’t that the piece shows an unfinished technique- perhaps it is just that he himself was still unfinished as a personality. It is the work of a teenager, of someone finding himself. As a document of all that attendant angst, pathos, passion and ambition, in showing the promise and flaws of a great young talent, it’s pretty flawless.

In between sat the great Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. A perfect piece if ever there was one, by a composer whose teenage works need no apologies or explanations.  I love the piece, but what always strikes me about it is how much anger and violence there is the first movement. Mendelssohn does charm as well as anyone who ever lived, but I wouldn’t pick a fight with him for anything.

But if the Mendelssohn offers a perfect listening experience in a way the other two works don’t, I’m not sure the experience is any more moving or meaningful, if the Schubert and Beethoven are played with enough imagination and conviction. In some ways, the Schubert and Beethoven are more important pieces. They tell us more about their creators and our selves and our times than many more polished pieces. For the performers, our job is put that across to the audience in spite of the flaws and rough edges in the music.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

14 comments on “In praise of the imperfect”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Pondering perfection generates a lot of imperfect and subjective arguments! Perfection is particularly relative for a composer, since much of what we do when we write is make compromises in order to make the music flow forward the way it should. And when people interpret music they do their best to make up for what might be weak points in a given piece or a given phrase with their own particular charms. That’s what composers expect good musicians to do. It is one of those things that reaches its wobbly hand across centuries, languages, and cultures, and reminds us that we are participating in a continuum of music making that doesn’t end with what is on the printed page.

    I actually began my blog back in 2005 (six years ago!) with a post about reconsidering perfection, and I think that you might find it interesting reading:

    http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com/2005/02/reconsidering-perfection.html

  2. Foster Beyers

    I often wonder about Brahms and his unbelievable perfection. I belive he wrote alot of music which he later destroyed before the eyes and ears of the world could be critical of it. I think Brahms wrote just as many awkward or unsuccessful pieces as Beethoven but the difference is they never survived for us to find out about.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @Foster Beyers

    Hi Foster- great to hear from you.

    You are quite right. It is believed that Brahms wrote something like 20-30 string quartets, of which only 3 were allowed to see the light of day. Does that take away from what he achieved or just highlight it? It seems like it is even more amazing to realize that he wasn’t just a composing machine how created perfection every time he put pen to paper. He actually had to work and suffer and doubt to get each of his published works to that level of polish, and had to destroy a lot of beautiful things along the way that didn’t quite reach that level.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine
    Hi Elaine

    Great blog post- thanks for linking it!

    Your comment about composition and getting things to flow right brought to mind Sibelius 5. I think of it as a pretty perfect piece, and it gets more perfect every time I study it.

    What is interesting to learn is how much Sibelius struggled to find the right form, the right sense of flow, the right shape of the piece. What seems entirely predestined in the musical DNA of the themes actually eluded him for a long time. He had to go through 2 difficult revisions and a lot of self doubt. In the end, he was able to figure out what the material was telling him so well that we have a perfect piece- the end result of a messy and imperfect process.

  5. Ed Chang

    Kenneth – I enjoyed reading your post on perfection. Still – I’m finding it hard to consider a musical work as perfect (or imperfect) in any kind of definitive sense. Good, bad, magic, dragging, fiery, deep, perfect – these seem to me to be arguable traits which can be perceived one way or another by many different people. For my money the Eroica IS perfect – the finale is not as “serious” as the 1st 2 movements – but it seems perfectly appropriate (to me) to puncture that opening presto with some comic relief. And the fugal writing that follows is sublime perfection as well to my ears.

    To call the Egmont incidental music imperfect when taken out of context is like saying a Porsche is imperfect without its engine block. Or if you claimed “Citizen Kane” was an imperfect film without the dialogue :).

    Despite my avowed mistrust of subjective words like ‘perfect’, as a Beethoven fanatic, I can honestly say that I consider every note B. wrote to be ‘perfect’ – except the works which are terrible – those I file under “spurious authorship” 😉

  6. Erik K

    Forgive me, Ken, for what I am about to say…

    Not EVERYTHING Brahms wrote is perfect. I think his low point (which is admittedly higher than tons of other composers high points) is the Double Concerto, which for me does not sustain its momentum very well, and certainly not as well as the Violin Concerto. The third movement in particular borders on hokey, and if I were to speed it up just a bit I could rock out on the Carlton (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) dance. Also, he loaded the train with dynamite!

    One other nitpick…Mahler 6 is only perfect if the Scherzo comes second. If the Andante is second, it’s far from perfect.

    Great post and point. Perfection does not equate to coolness. Of course, that’s coming from me, who think Wellington’s Victory and Wallenstein’s Camp are two of the 30 coolest pieces around.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K

    Erik- you may have unleashed a paradox. I LOVE the Brahms Double. More than many pieces. But does that mean I disagree with you?I’ve just been arguing that sometimes one loves the flawed but magical pieces more. Is the Double such a work? How could it be better?

    Actually, for a long time I questioned the perfectiness of the B-flat Piano Concerto. The Finale always seemed a little, well, trite. I’ve now decided it is exactly what it has to be. Does that make it perfect? If not, how is it flawed?

    Still trying to program Wallenstein’s Camp.

  8. Peter

    Perfection/imperfection is a strange benchmark Ken!

    I like a lot of Brahms, but sometimes his intellectuar rigour can border on dryness and his apparent perfection is achieved by lacking a bit of vision. Mahler is the opposite – his vision strains well beyond the musical means, and this causes all kinds of flaws on a musical level but which I adore about him as a creative personality.

    Webern too is perfect, but about as restricted in musical vision as it is possible to get.

    That said – there are works by Brahms – the clarinet quintet for instance – which sustain a level of musical invention that is miraculous and moving. Perhaps the benchmark is not perfection, but that ability to sustainthat state of elevated discourse across a long and complex musical work?

    You have raised a big question. Perhaps perfection is where ambition and realisation are harmonised exactly. The greater your ambition, the harder it is to achieve perfection. Or is perfection the greatest ambition?

  9. Erik K

    I’m not sure if I consider the Double magical or not…certainly the first two movements are (I love the 2nd movement particularly), but the main theme of the third movement lacks the same rhythmic incisiveness that I find so appealing in Brahms, and it really feels boggy. The second theme has more energy, though, so maybe I need to get over it. I hate to keep comparing it to the Violin Concerto (actually I love comparing it), but the finale of that concerto stands up strong enough to support the massive breadth of the first two, and it doesn’t feel like the Double accomplishes that. Clearly I need to go home and listen to it again. Perhaps my friends Rosty and Oisty can help.

    In fact, your point about the PC2 sort of kills my point…because I agree that it makes perfect sense relative to the rest of the piece. I guess the Double’s finale just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong…wouldn’t be the first time…;-)

  10. Lucia

    Very well written, I have to think about this perfect versus imperfect music idea.

  11. Kenneth Woods

    @Peter

    Indeed, it is a strage benchmark! Probably part of my point- perfection may be over-rated.

    The interesting question with Brahms is whether he saw his classicism as a lack of vision or as his vision. Perhaps he thought his rigor was just as progressive as Mahler saw his experimentalism?

    It had never occurred to me that Webern might qualify as perfection, but I know what you mean.

    Actually, I’m not sure you can tie perfection to ambition in a reliable way. Mahler 6 is certainly no less ambitious than his other works, but it is sort of eerily flawless. Walkure and Siegfried are both equally insanely ambitious, but Walkure is way more perfect, even though bits of Siegfried are extremely cool. Ultimately, the Ring needs both, just like Mahler needed both the perfect 6th and the miraculously eccentric 7th.

  12. Kenneth Woods

    @Ed Chang

    Hi Ed

    Great to hear from you. I think you and I sort of agree. The whole point is that just because something is perfect it is not necessarily cooler or more moving or more important than a piece with problems. I suppose it can seem subjective, and people will disagree about these things whether a work of art is “perfect” or now. All I can say is, I know it when I work with it. Some works just fit and flow and arrive perfectly on every level. Other’s leave you with challenges and big decisions, but that’s okay. Eroica might be a greater piece than 7- it could be the greatest symphony ever written that is not Schumann 2 or Mahler 6, but it might also have a few rough edges and built in structural issues.

  13. Peter

    Ken – you have started so many conversations here, it is like a grand master chess player taking on an entire army of opponents.

    There are some works where you think – I wouldn’t/couldn’t imagine changing one note of it. Mahler 6 is one, but it would be a total disaster, if you wanted a cool classicist aesthetic. Its perfection lies in the tension between its expressionist content and its tight formal structure. The very essence of the piece is that mismatch between form and content. It works because it is intended, not a mishap. Mahler sets out to write a work exploring this paradox and succeeds.

    The finale of Brahms 4 has the same very tight formal structure but which entirely matches its content. It seems perfect and immutable because there is no tension between form and content. I am sure this is what Brahms wanted to say. He leaves us with a sense of grim inevitabilty that is without bombast or sentimentality. How Brahms achives that at a psychological level is by incredible intellectual discipline and a degree of reticence. There is no hint of the hysteria we find in the Mahler, even if there is a lot of intensity under the lid.

    I think what I mean by ambition is intent. If a composer realises his intention then it all clicks and feels complete. His idea can be a big or small, but the impact is decided by our sense that the idea has been fully realised.

    Bruckner will stir up some debate, because the later symphonies have this stamp of completion and they need to be as long as they are to achieve that. But you feel that the massive ambition of these works demands a particular kind of raw material (rather like if you want to build a cathedral you need very big pieces of stone.) But if you are writing a Debussy Prelude, you might create a complete/perfect work out of a single tiny motivic fragment.

    Perfection is measured against intent The Bruckner symphony or the Debussy Prelude are equally perfect – but if you compared one with the other, you’d say they were both disasters; the Debussy as a symphonic statement, the Bruckner as a pictorial miniature.

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