Quantity and Quality

Is the more merrier? There have been some composers who just bang out pieces like it was nothing, and there have been others who take years with pieces. There have been masterpieces from both types of composers. I just want to address the idea of prolific-ness in music.

The first uber-prolific composer I can think of is Georg Phillipp Telemann (I love it when people have names with one more/one less letter than it should), who has over 3000 pieces to his credit and according to Wikipedia, is one of the most prolific composers ever. I don’t know of any other artist in any medium who has produced so much. Of course, when you write 3000 pieces, there are needless to say, quite a few that aren’t played often. The next guy who wrote a lot that we know today is a name you may/may not know: JS Bach. He has over 1100 BWV numbers, and there are quite a few works which have been lost to history. I read somewhere that Bach, obviously, had his masterpieces, and then there were his lesser works, but Bach never really wrote a “bad” piece. I haven’t heard all 1126 credited works, so I can say. Now why did these Baroque guys write so much more than anyone else, ever? Because it was their job. Bach basically had to write new music for every Sunday service, and more stuff for other special occasions, and then he wrote the secular works for his own pleasure. That’s how it worked back then with the churches and the courts and what not. There are probably some guys who wrote as much, if not more, than Bach, but most of the music is just lost. When a new director was appointed, all the old guys work just got thrown out.

In the Classical era, it was more of the same, except now most of the composers worked in courts, as opposed to churches. Haydn has over 750 works to his name, Mozart over 600, and Schubert, almost 1000. Haydn worked in the courts, Mozart sort of did, on and off, but Schubert just wrote a lot of songs. Beethoven, has around 300 works, which by today’s standards is a lot, but we never really think Beethoven was really prolific. Relative to his contemporaries, he wasn’t, but really, 300 isn’t exactly a small oeuvre.

In the Romantic era the days of the artist just spitting out music sort of died. There were quite a few composers who stuck to one or two mediums for composition, which was unheard of in the old days: Chopin, piano music; Wagner and Verdi, opera; Berlioz, orchestral; Mahler and Bruckner, symphonies (yeah I know Mahler wrote songs, but his symphonies are the heart of his output. Same with Bruckner and his masses). I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a big name Romantic era guy who wrote tons and tons of stuff. Tchaikovsky and Brahms wrote in many different mediums, but neither of them were prolific.

After the turn of the 20th century, there were quite a few composers who could be called prolific. The three that come to mind are Hindemith, Hovhaness, and Milhaud. Hindemith wrote tons of chamber music, with sonatas for every instrument that generally get sonatas, and then one for every other instrument, including, but not limited to, Viola d’Amore, Tuba, and English Horn. Hovhaness has over 500 surviving works, and there were also a bunch which he destroyed, so who even knows really how much he wrote. Most notable are the 67 symphonies. Just in looking through his list of compositions I see there is a 7th Harpsichord sonata, and tons and tons of choral settings. Milhaud may be the least known of the three, but lord, he churned out music, with close to 450 op. numbers. Almost all 450 of them are dust covered. The only reason I know his name is because he wrote a famous band piece “Suite française,” which was then arranged for orchestra, then turned into a ballet. I’m listening to some of his symphonies as I’m writing. I don’t think they’re too bad. It’s French, sort of jazzy, but not masterpieces. Give them a listen, no one else will. There’s a bunch on youtube. Shostakovich also wrote quite a bit of music, but not nearly as much as these guys.

Does writing a lot of music mean it’s going to be better? Not really, but that’s not to say if one writes a lot, it is by default, bad. So is more the merrier? See if you can find me a recording of Hovhaness’ 7th Harpsichord sonata.

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About Why must you use all the notes

So much to do, so little reason to do so much of it...
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2 Responses to Quantity and Quality

  1. crackladen says:

    Great post and an interesting thought in general. Is it better to have a higher percentage of your output considered great because you wrote less and yet had the same number of “masterpieces” as someone who wrote much more?

    An interesting comparison is film directing: two of the greatest directors are Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, and each of them has nine movies that I think a great majority of people would agree are truly great (Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut for Kubrick; Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln for Spielberg), but Kubrick only directed 14 feature films total. Spielberg is at 31 and counting. Does the fact that Spielberg is responsible for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Lost World diminish the achievement of his great works? I don’t know…

    I’m a sucker for Alan Hovhaness. I think his greatest works stand up to anything written in the 20th century. But he’s got some pretty terrible stuff in there too. Eventually, we start to just ignore them altogether, and I think we ultimately end up with the feeling that their respective outputs are smaller than what they are. We wouldn’t think Mozart wrote 41 symphonies if the last of them wasn’t numbered 41…I think we just subconsciously figure he wrote ten or so.

    Sounds like the next step is the 10 best kinda shitty pieces written by great composers…

    • I like the comparison with the film guys. I love 2001. I also agree that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull kinda sucked. My big thing with Mozart is that everyone talks about how he wrote operas and symphonies when he was 8 or whatever, but who has ever heard Mozart’s 3rd? I’ll think I’ll leave the 10 best kinda Shitty Pieces to you. Note: I look up Wellington’s Victory, and boy, that’s some funny stuff.

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