Imagine saying that among all the mountains of the Earth, only the Himalayas are worth visiting because they’re the tallest. Well, the Alps are nice, but not as tall as the Himalayas, so never mind. The Canadian Rockies, the Sierra Nevada? Less spectacular than the Andes, and shorter than the Himalayas. Forget them. Never mind the Adirondacks or the Oregon Coast Range.
I feel listeners, performers and lovers of music are doing something similar when only the “greatest masterpieces” (according to whom?) are performed or acknowledged.
One can take this metaphor too far. But just as saying that Glacier National Park in Montana isn’t worth the time because the mountains in Banff and Jasper are “more spectacular” strikes me as utterly ridiculous, so does promoting just the odd-numbered symphonies of Beethoven. Symphonies 1 and 2 are often ignored — despite being wonderful and masterpieces in their own right — but it’s definitely true that symphonies 3, 5, 7 and 9 are played significantly more often than 4, 6 and 8.
It’s true that the latter are not as monumental as the others, and perhaps in some ways were less radical in concept. But they are absolutely gorgeous pieces, and I submit that neglecting them is a mistake.
Other examples include Tchaikovsky’s symphonies 1-3, neglected in favor of 4-6. I assure you that Tchaikovsky’s “early” symphonies are worth hearing.
We rarely get to hear any of Dvorák’s symphonies other than 8 and 9. No. 7 is indisputably a masterpiece, as are 5 and 6, but what about 1-4? Absolutely worth some attention!
It’s even worse than that. The “acknowledged masterpieces only” stance amplifies the sins of the past by reinforcing the neglect of women composers, who were unjustly kept from being taken seriously as musicians. Clara Schumann’s piano concerto is every bit as worthy of being heard as her brother Robert’s, for instance. The great wealth of music around the globe from continents other than Europe, including some traditions easily as deep and rich as classical music can be, are shortchanged by this approach. And it can prevent the fair hearing of music (art or popular) from the present.
Mount Rainier is spectacular, but it’s a mistake to focus on it to the exclusion of the much shorter Olympic Mountains or the lovely rolling hills of the Palouse. And frankly I feel sad for anyone who cannot see the beauty of the desert, wetlands or prairie.
Most listeners are understandably going to choose most often music they already know and love, and that’s OK. Still, it’s worth every listener’s time to venture into new territory occasionally, not for comparison to the favorites, but for its own sake.
• Ryan M. Hare is the Yakima Symphony Orchestra principal bassoon. Learn more about the symphony at www.ysomusic.org.