Is opera better than chamber music? Is choral music better than piano music?
Those are fairly ridiculous questions, of course, but kind of interesting anyway. Much to my discredit, I’ve been thinking about them lately. And even though nobody asked me to, I came up with a way to answer them. I’m calling it the Repertoire Quality Percentage. To apply it, you look at the music that is performed most often in different performance genres (chamber music, choral music, see below) and estimate the percentage of it that is good and the percentage that is bad.
I’ll start with the genres that score highest in terms of quality, and move down to the lowest. Ready? Here we go.
Chamber Music for Strings and Piano: 95% Quality Rating
If you attend performances given by both professional and student string quartets, piano trios, and other string-based chamber groups, you will notice that at least 95% of the music you will hear is of excellent quality. There’s a pretty simple reason. There is so much chamber music written by the greatest composers in these genres – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Ravel, and Debussy – that chamber groups rarely need to forage into mediocre works just to fill out their programs. Even “B-level” composers of chamber music like Spohr, for example, were actually very good composers.
Orchestral Music: 90% Quality Rating
Again, there is so much excellent orchestral music that orchestras usually find it unnecessary to round out their programs by playing substandard repertory. The so-so stuff creeps in, sadly, on the contemporary end of the orchestral music spectrum. I am certainly not saying that contemporary orchestral music is bad music – for example, I have recently heard the New York Philharmonic perform terrific works composed by Magnus Lindberg, Christopher Rouse and Thomas Adès. I’m just saying that if you’re going to hear a yawner in an orchestral concert, chances are it will be a new piece.
Vocal Recitals: 85% Quality Rating
Again, there is so much top-quality repertoire for vocal recitalists – songs by Barber, Copland, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Debussy, DuParc, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Granados, Turina – that most singers don’t have to dig down to round out their programs with mediocre works. Still, singers need to make their recitals interesting and varied, so they tend to include about 15% so-so repertoire that could come from anywhere – songs they composed themselves, songs composed by their friends or teachers, you name it.
Solo Piano Music: 80% Quality Rating
Most piano recitalists offer programs that contain mostly very good music – about 80% of it. As is the case with chamber music, they have little need to opt for mediocre music to fill out their programs. (About the only often-performed mediocre piece I can think of is the Liszt B Minor Sonata; it falls in the “important but mediocre” category.) The 20% of the mediocre music performed by pianists in recitals is there to “round out” recital programs. Sadly, again, it is often contemporary. You’ve heard it – the pieces composed by the performer’s friends or spouse, for example.
Opera: 80% Quality Rating
This category, and that rating, are kind of skewed. If you attend performances by a small regional opera company that performs only a few operas a year, for example, you could find that nearly 100% of its repertory is excellent. I’m sort of focusing on the “standard repertory” that you’re going to hear at the Met, the Chicago Lyric, the Seattle Opera, and other big houses. Most of the operas that you will hear in those places have stood the test of time and are generally of good or excellent quality – the Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, middle to-late Verdi, as well as excellent stand-alone “home runs” like Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Eugene Onegin. The mediocre stuff comes mostly from standard repertoire that is actually pretty substandard in quality, like Massenet’s Thais and Werther, Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Some substandard operas by great opera composers also get performed, like Puccini’s La Rondine or Fanciulla del West. There is also some mediocre repertory that creeps in from the musical comedies that opera companies now routinely tackle, as well as from Gilbert & Sullivan. Some Broadway musicals and some G&S are very good works – but some of that stuff is dismal and it gets performed anyway. And a lot of newer operas are top-notch – I’m thinking of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys¸ performed at the Metropolitan Opera this season, and all the works of John Adams.
Wind-Based Chamber Music and Music for Wind Ensembles: 50% Quality Rating
Apologies to all you wind players out there – but you know the problems even better than I do. There are simply not enough masterpieces to fill out programs. Chances are you have ended up programming a lot of arrangements of works that were born in other genres. (Do you really like to play arrangements of the “Triumphal March from Aida” or “The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov?” Didn’t think so.) And let’s face it, a lot of the music that has been composed specifically for brass or woodwind quintets is pretty dismal. Granted, masterpieces have been composed specifically for brass ensembles – I’m thinking of Gabrieli. But there just isn’t enough excellent original repertory to round out programs.
One exception? A New York-based wind ensemble called Imani Winds, which performs both original works and arrangements that are of exceptionally high quality.
Check out this video of this ensemble’s excellent performance of a piece written by one of its members.
New Music: 50% Quality Rating
I’m waffling here, I admit, because there are so many variables. If you attend a performance of new music given by a percussion ensemble, for example, you are going to hear probably 90% good music. If you attend a performance of a college’s contemporary ensemble with a lot of student compositions, that percentage will be lower. If you attend a performance given by a performance artist – well, it depends on how good he or she is. So I’m averaging it all out and giving it a middle-of-the-strike-zone kind of rating.
Choral Music: 30% Quality Rating
There is no question that some of the greatest music ever composed is choral music – Bach’s major choral works as well as his cantatas, anthems by Handel and Purcell, Haydn’s Creation, the Mozart Requiem, the Brahms German Requiem, the Verdi Requiem and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Yet for a variety of reasons, performances of those works are vastly outnumbered by performances of B-level or even C-level works like Orff’s Carmina Burana, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Vivaldi’s Gloria and Faure’s Requiem.
Then we get into the question of Christian and Jewish liturgical music. In churches and temples, choir directors are faced with the problem of coming up with new works to perform weekly. The result is a big market for mediocre music. Some of the most successful composers of contemporary choral music fall into this category with turgid, sentimental, soporific and lugubrious works that are calculated to tear at the heartstrings of all listeners or inspire uplifting enthusiasm. (I don’t want to name any names.) Even a lot of the “standard” church music that is often performed is dismal – the Howells anthems, The Crucifixionby Stainer, and worse.
Amateur choruses and choral societies also contribute to that low 30% rating. Sure, there are some good performing ensembles of this type out there, but most of them perform a lot of “B-Level” repertoire, simply because they can handle it. At other times, such groups tackle certifiable masterpieces, like Bach’s Saint Matthewor Mozart’s Requiem, often with so-so results. But that’s beside the point of today’s post, which is intended to compare performing genres, not performance quality.
College a Cappella Groups: 0% Quality Rating
Okay, I’m only kidding on this one. I just wanted to see if anybody out there is still reading this post. But certain pieces in this category, like “The Whiffenpoof Song” are so abysmal that they submerge the entire category.
Here it is – the worst piece of music ever composed.
I expect that I’ve made some of you readers grumpy today. But that’s okay. If I did, please feel free to attack me in the space provided below. I look forward to your comments.