You might think you could take it for granted that graduates of our top music schools, colleges and conservatories would have a nodding acquaintance with those works generally regarded as the great masterpieces.
You would be wrong.
There are good reasons to suspect that students who have spent four years studying music do not know the great works that are both their tradition and the materials with which they are planning to make their living.
This subject has come up in recent months among groups of visiting musicians on campuses in Boston, Philadelphia, Hamilton, Ontario, New York, New Haven, London, Chicago and many other cities. The general agreement, expressed by composers, musicologists, historians, biographers and practicing performers, is that today's graduates are quite often expert on the flute or trombone, they know the latest techniques in percussion and string playing, they are remarkable in the way they play from the newest notation.
But - and the conjunction is never long in arriving - these young musicians do not know the great works of music, and have not been given the opportunity to become well acquainted with them.
There are also indications that this condition, which did not previously exist to the extent that it now does, is becoming more widespread. It is also completely uncharacteristic of great musicians who are now, or have until recently, been with us. Among such highly diverse musicians as Ernest Bloch and Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindemith, Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg, Alfred Wallenstein and Aaron Copland, a constant factor has been their encyclopedic knowledge of the cantatas of Bach, the operas of Verdi, the music of Faure, the songs of Schubert and Schumann, the quartets of Beethoven, the concertos of Mozart. And always towering over these, like Himalayan heights, the B Minor Mass and Passions of Bach, the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven, Handel's "Israel in Egypt," and "Solomon."
A single quotation will suggest the significance of these speculations. In his Aspen speech in 1964, the late Benjamin Britten said, "It is arguable that the richest and most productive 18 months in our musical history is the time when Beethoven had just died, when the other 19th-century giants, Wagner, Verdi and Brahms, had not begun; I mean the period in which Franz Schubert wrote the 'Winterreise,' the C Major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C Major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time seems hardly credible; but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanantion."
If you accept Britten's assessment, and it is hard to dispute it, then it would seem logical to think that piano students would study the songs of "Winterreise" and work on them with singers; that flute players would listen to the C Major String Quintet; and that those who have mastered te technique of the viola would want to hear the great piano sonatas to whcih Britten refers. But that is not the way things are going in our principal music schools these days.
Not long ago I asked a group of 35 graduate students at one of our most pretigious music schools how many of them felt that they knew "reasonably well" the following works: Wagner's "Tristan"; either the late B Flat or C Sharp Minor Quartets of Beethoven; either Mozart quintet, C Major or G Minor; Stravinsky's "Sacre"; Bartok's Music for Percussion, Celesta and Strings; the B Minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion of Bach; Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro"; any later Haydn string quartet; the Schumann "Dichterliebe"; the Schoenberg Trio; either the Beethoven "Eroica" Symphony or one of Mozart's two last symphonies.
The most recent of these, the Bartok, was known to nine students, the largest number to signal for any one of the works. Not more than two or three indicated that they knew any one of the others.
Two further examples of this problem will show how widely it spreads. A few days after Lorin Maazel showed his amazing command of Verdi's "Otello" by conducting it here with the Paris Opera on a few hours' notice and with no rehearsal, I was telling these same students of his achievement. Presuming that they knew the most significant basics of that score. I said, "You all know, of course, how 'Otello' opens."
No one did. Remember, these are graduate music, students, and good ones.
A few weeks later, Lili Kraus, after rehearsing a Mozart concerto with the local orchestra, came to that same class for a gracious hour of discussion and answering questions. As she began to illustrate a passage at the piano, she looked to the class and said, "You know this concerto?" No affirmative nods. Interrupting, I asked if they would have known some other Mozart piano concertos. No one moved.
Artistically speaking, this is an unhealthy situation. There is no question that music students these days need every second of their time to master those matters - technical and professional - that are required of them. But there is also no question that those musicians who have a solid grounding in the great literature, not merely of their own instruments but of the great works for whatever musical combinations, give greater performances. It is not possible to love music, which is surely one of the marks of all fine musicians, unless you know its great accomplishments.