Flawed masterpiece?

Jonathan Rutherford

Chris Kettle has said "it is fatally easy to go over the top about this work [The Gothic]". Had I gone fatally over the top? It might embarrass me, in the cold light of day, to read that "my head is spinning" or that Brian would be put "firmly and unquestionably on the map as one of the great composers this century". But I would like to think that one can speak from the heart without it being assumed that the mind is disengaged. It is inhuman to speak of music clinically.

I want to explore the extent to which one might define the Gothic as a "flawed masterpiece". Is the phrase "flawed masterpiece" a contradiction in terms? Do masters really write works with flaws in them? A work might seem to be flawed from a technical aspect or an ethical point of view. One might ask if the Gothic is technically flawed — does it fail to achieve its purpose to any degree? Is it on the other hand morally or ethically flawed — does it lead us to destructive thoughts or acts?

General opinion probably accepts that The Rite of Spring, Tapiola, Così fan tutte, and Mahler’s eighth symphony are unflawed masterpieces. It could be, though, that these pieces merely seem to be perfect because they balance that which is beyond our comprehension (and it makes some of us feel proud to tackle the unknown) with that which is beautiful. Each of our opinions varies because the balance seems different when seen from other perspectives. Everything that achieves any degree of popularity always gets the balance right, and gives the right perspective for that particular spectator. The work of art that makes us feel terrible without even making us feel good about feeling terrible will somehow, I think, never catch on.

If we are to tolerate the description "flawed masterpiece" as apt for the Gothic or any other work, we would have to understand and accept its meaning. The word "masterpiece" we all understand. It means the work of a master. If someone tells us that the Gothic is a masterpiece (let alone a flawed one) he will have let slip that Havergal Brian is one who can teach us lower mortals something. Well, I am all for that, although I have not heard it loudly acknowledged by public opinion.

The four works that I suggested are accepted as unflawed masterpieces were not always considered so. And perhaps we do not, or cannot, or, worse, do not wish to know, their true worth. How many suicides has Tapiola encouraged? No-one can know. But for all its technical and imaginative mastery, it is a deeply depressing and frightening work. It is possible Sibelius gave up composing because he was afraid of plumbing such depths again.

One could perceive a great deal of Mozart to be unsafe to listen to. There is an unhappy tension between the pious and the cheeky in Mozart’s character which comes through his music. We can only smile when we hear Mozart if we do not succumb to the tragic beauties as Shaffer’s Salieri fatally did in Amadeus. Beethoven is never really so sad, although his joyful excitements might have led some to commit acts of violence, as Anthony Burgess points out in A clockwork orange. But if we are to judge works of art upon criteria such as whether they improve our health, or our happiness, or our social behaviour, a very great deal of art would have to be scorned, particularly, arguably, twentieth century art.

Seem from a logical point of view the number of works by masters that are, to all intents and purposes, perfect is relatively small. If Mozart’s last three symphonies are his finest, would one not deduce that the other 30-odd are less fine and, therefore, flawed? One aims for perfection. Come on, Mozart, three great successes out of 40 is not a brilliant record. Of course, all this proves that perfection is not what we look for in art. There must be other things we look for too.

From my own viewpoint there are passages in the Gothic that seem weaker than others — which may, indeed, be weak. But I may, on the other hand, not yet have understood them. There were several long choral passages that were almost as meaningless to me, musically, as the sound of herds of wailing animals — until the new recording enlightened me. Choirs perform Mahler’s Eighth now with such consummate artistry that we have no trouble understanding what we hear, and we are astonished that people once derided that work. Early performances may have been very difficult to like if the performers themselves were struggling.

We may all have heard very unpleasant performances of atonal music, and while many of us may dislike atonal music, half the struggle was in hearing the players struggle. Did we not all feel the relief when the London Sinfonietta let Schoenberg and Webern sound like real music, expressively straightforward and in tune? I have heard bad performances of classical music which made me feel miserable and think "I thought I liked this piece — perhaps I don’t". And then you hear Barbirolli, say, or Clara Haskil, and realize how much of the music’s beauties can be hidden by the strugglers’ performance. And how much more would this be so when the work in question has as many difficulties as the Gothic does?

But if the Gothic is, in itself, a ‘flawed masterpiece’, then I think, at least, we can mention it in the same breath as, for example the Linz or Haffner symphonies and, killing two birds with one stone, call Havergal Brian a master.

NL91 © 1990 Jonathan Rutherford

Newsletter, NL 91, 1990