Bruce Brubaker has posted recently on the topic of repertoire inflation – the tendency of young pianists to take on gargantuan pianistic challenges at an unnaturally young age – high school students playing the Liszt Sonata or Gaspard. I share his concern – there is something absurd about the first Beethoven sonata you learn being Op. 111.
I fear that something similar that can happen in composition: the young composer who tries to write a 40 minute cantata when it might be a better idea to craft a well-made 10-minute song tryptych. Not that students shouldn’t set the bar high – it’s important to challenge oneself. After all, the reverse can also be a problem, the student who is too easily satisfied with presenting a few sparse ideas without really digging in and exploring the material. (This kind of piece usually comes with cute movement titles.) As always, the challenge is to come down in “the place just right”.
Composition inflation can affect composers later on in their career, resulting in pieces that strive for extreme emotional content, sometimes with good results, sometimes not.
40 or 50 years ago, undoubtedly in the shadow of The Bomb, there developed a genre of apocalyptic pieces: Don Erb’s The Seventh Trumpet; Crumb’s Star-Child (complete with an army of tom-toms depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and Black Angels; Richard Wernick’s Visions of Terror and Wonder; Rochberg’s Apocalyptica; the Ligeti Requiem; Karel Husa’s Music for Prague might fit in here. Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is perhaps an early example, with Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time being the progenitor a generation earlier, and with works by Berlioz, Verdi and Mahler in the background. Christopher Rouse is the prime exponent currently, and handles it masterfully. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of these pieces. It is just that the apocalyptic genre is not for every composer, and shouldn’t be for every piece.
I first started thinking about this when I heard John Harbison’s bass concerto a few years ago. I was struck by how the piece was content to be what it was – that it didn’t have to carry stupendous emotional weight or an apocalyptic scenario. I don’t mean it was dry – the piece is elegant, imaginative, and expressive without sentimentality. Now, in part this has to be ascribed to the medium – it is hard to imagine a bombastic double bass concerto. But it also can be traced to John’s willingness to write something that didn’t have to compositionally or emotionally show off (the soloist does get to shine, of course.) It is a little easier to do this when you have more opportunities to write for orchestra, since there is less pressure to make a single piece be everything and do everything.
I hope my own music has enough expressive range to encompass the explosive and the playful, the intimate and the epic – but not necessarily all of those in every piece.