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8/20/97: Why does the playfully entertaining seem so threatening to “great” musical artists? Why do we consider Ach, so fromm to be a lesser aria than virtually any Wagner aria? Even Stravinsky lauded Quest’ o quella as a brilliantly “playful” piece, with more true invention than much more seriously regarded music. What do you think?

We’ve been trying to identify a quotation without any luck. It’s a good quote though, so here it is.... We are told that some famous actor (perhaps Edmund Kean or Edwin Booth)* was on his deathbed and, when asked about his suffering, said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” If anyone knows a citation for this, we would be delighted to hear from you.

I can only agree that a lot of snobbery surrounds a musical event. But I have one important reservation: I do not think that most artists harbor the prejudice you describe. I certainly do not think that most “great” artists do. I think you are confusing artists with commentators. Some commentators will tell you that all of the music we are discussing is dead and irrelevant, too. ;-)

Every time I am reminded that many audience members think Turandot is a big conducting challenge, I am surprised anew. Is it the big forces? the volume? the sweeping melodic line? The truth is that I need three times the rehearsal to get a wonderful Don Pasquale as I do to get a wonderful Turandot. (Of course, the caveat in any such comparison is: given equivalent talent in the cast, equivalent “materials” to work with.) Some “light” music is very complex and taxes the skills of all involved. The performers also have to reach something like agreement on style, wit, taste, and restraint. Comedy is hard.

But that is complexity and difficulty. What about greatness? There are, after all, very simple moments in music that are great. It is reasonable to believe that something is great because it has a grand, irresistible melodic line and contributes mightily to catharsis. It is also reasonable to believe that Wagner and Strauss achieved greatness at their most original, inventive, and technically challenging. And, especially in the theater, a moment can be great because it expresses a feeling or emotion perfectly. The question, then, is: Why does the speaker consider something great?

We hope that listeners grow in their perceptions of what is great or, more precisely, that they develop an ear for and recognize more kinds of greatness—great melody, great invention, great technical execution by a soloist, great ensemble of performers and, even, a great match of music and story line. But both novices and life-long fans and, yes, even “artists” can be snobs. Dismissive generalizations about genres, nationalities, centuries, and composers, that is, are likely to be just prejudice, plain and simple.


* In the summer of 2003, a visitor advised us, nope, it wasn’t Edwin Booth and the quote has been attributed to more than one performer. The quest continues. Citations are welcome.

©1997 by Joseph Rescigno. The text here may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given.

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