TWENTY-FIVE years ago Robet Maynard Hutchins wrote in the preface to the Great Books of the Western World: until late the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition.There never was very much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind."
Change the word "books" to "compositions" and the word "writing" to "music" and the rationale for asking graduate students in music to become acquainted with their great works is quite clear. Yet there is little doubt and conservatories, are sending out students with bachelor's and master's degrees who have not been sufficiently, if all, exposed to what "mankind has called the finest creations," in music, of the Western mind.
This educational gap is critical enough for those students who hope to be leading performers in recitals, chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras. Think what it means to those who aspire to move, and soon, into the country's principal conducting positions.
To illustrate: Some years ago Paul Henry Lang, then professor music at Columbia University and the music critic of The New York Herald Tribune, was leading a "skull session" during a three-month seminar in conducting held at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation. His students were five of the most promising young conductors of that time. They were men with considerable experience, who, under the eagle-eyed guidance of men like George Szell, Leonard Bernstein and Alfred Wallenstein, hoped to move, as some of them have, into major conducting assignments.
Lang played them a recording and asked them to identify it. "What kind of music is it?" he asked, as blank looks greeted the unfolding of its powerful C. Minor opening. "By whom?"
No answer came from any of these men who considered themselves ready to take over the batons of Szell, Reiner, and Ormandy. The recording was of the C. Minor Piano Concerto of Mozart. Yet it was not until the piano made its entrance, more than 3 1/2 minutes into the work, that any of the five had an inkling of its identity.
How far these men were from Szell, who could play the orchestral part of every one of the 27 piano concertos of Mozart with no music in front of him, who could discuss intimately the scoring of any Dvorak symphony, the error in many editions of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, play at sight from an orchestral score any tone poem or opera by Richard Strauss!
There are, of course, few Szells. But today's music students do not seem to be pointed toward acquiring the kind of encyclopedic knowledge of music in many forms that has always been one of the marks of the great musician. Arthur Rubinstein once told me that today he could still play some two dozen songs by Debussy without the music. Once when a young man in London, he played the entire orchestral score of the Brahms violin concerto for Jacqaues Thibaud, and played it from memory! It did not occur to him that pianists are not expected to know anything about violin concertos.
There are many such instructive tales. The evening in John McCormack's apartment in New York City when that supreme Irish tenor stood by the piano all evening singing songs by Hugo Wolf with a Russian pianist named Sergei Rachmaninov. Why would an Irish tenor and a Russian pianist care about the songs of Wolf? (They even had a music critic for a page turner, a fellow named Ernest Newman). And the night another music critic offered to play, without any music, an aria that Metropolitan Opera soprano Teresa Stratas would be willing to sing - and he had only met Stratas a few minutes earlier.
This kind of cross-fertilization among musicians characterizes and accounts for much of the greatness of Rudolf Serkin's Marlboro Music Center. This is the brand of unlimited curiousity about all kinds of music that led to a famous evening in the Metropolitan Opera House many years ago when pianist Ignace Paderewski, violinist Fritz Kreisler, and cellist Pablo Casals joined in a trio after which violinist Kreisler played the piano for Casals and cellist Casals turned around and played the piano for Kreisler.
Curiousity and knowledge: Rudolf Serkin, for example, often inaccurately described as devoted exclusively to Beethoven, has played "everything" for the piano. In Washington concerts he has been memorable in the etudes of Chopin and Debussy; his concerto repertoire, on and off recordings, has included neglected works by Prokofiev, Bartok and Reger, and for a time the Busoni Concerto. Artur Schnabel, similarly mislabeled, once said in a Washington interview, "I have played everything for the piano from Bach through all the romantic music of Chopin and Liszt to our own time." And when he turned to composition, Schnabel astounded his fans by writing 12-tone music only.
Music majors today are under heavy pressures, too many of them on the academic side of things. Certainly musicians should be well grounded in topics apart from music, but today fewer demands could well be made in some areas, particularly in order to give the students greater opportunity to know music's masterpieces. Exhaustive courses in the history of music have their plate for some students, but it does nothing for a superb cellist to know the intricaties of hocketing, the "praelegendum," and the apotome.
Which are the great works? Well, no list of 12 or 18 or 24 compositions will embrace them all. And no one should try to gobble up the entire contents of any list in a short time. But the following program contains works that have endured and been called, by the common voice of mankind, some of the finest creations of the Western mind. To know them well will not only provide a firm beginning in music, but will be a source of personal enrichment in the life of any listener, professional or layman.
Some Masterpieces for Study
Bach: *Mass in B Minor; *The St. Matthew Passion.
Bartok: *Music for percussion, celesta, and strings. String Quartet No. 4 or 5.
Beethoven: *String Quartet in B Flat, Op. 130, OR *C Sharp Minor, Op. 131.
*Symphony No. 3. Missa Solemnis.
Handel: "Messiah" OR "Solomon."
Haydn: *String Quartet, any from Op. 50 on Symphony No. 102, 103, or 104.
Monteverdi: "Orfeo" OR "Poppaea."
Mozart: *String Quintet in C, K. 515, OR in *G Minor, K. 516. "That Marriage of Figaro," OR "Don Giovanni." Symphony No. 40 OR 41. Any piano concerto from No. 20 on.
Schoenberg: *Trio, Op. 45.
Schubert: String Quintet in C. "Die Winterreise."
Stravinsky: *Le sacre du printemps.
Wagner: *"Tristan und Isolde."
(This informal list of the "greatest works," of music was drawn up by Hans Keller, musicologist and BBC program adviser; Denis Matthews, English pianist and professor of music; Alan Walker, dean, school of music, McMaster University; and Paul Hume.)