Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Makes a Masterpiece?

This summer, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a group of inquisitive students in my music appreciation class. As we began our survey of music history, I mentioned that we will be looking at masterpieces of the repertoire together. A question must be raised: What determines which piece will be a masterpiece? It's an interesting question that my students and I are exploring this week. I don't know that there's a definite answer, but here are some of the things that have come to my mind.

A masterpiece is timeless. Although the work may introduce new sounds and compositional techniques, they are not used as cliches. The sounds are thoroughly explored and somehow manage to remain fresh with each repeated hearing.

A masterpiece communicates universally. The composition's power extends beyond national, religious, and economic boundaries. It speaks to our humanity and focuses on our commonality.

A masterpiece is often revolutionary. As mentioned earlier, those pieces that we tend to appreciate the most challenged the establishment. The music leapt beyond the confines of the accepted and safe to bring us something exciting. Regardless of whether we're talking about Machaut's Notre Dame Mass or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, change was in the air.....and change is exciting!

As the week comes to a close, I'll be updating this post with the criteria my students provide for a masterpiece. I think it will be interesting to see what these non-musicians have to say on the topic. As a further exercise, I asked them to consider which piece composed during their lifetime will be discussed in 200 years. I expect that most of their answers will come from the realm of popular music...and rightfully so!

As I thought about the piece from the past 40 years that will be discussed two centuries from now, I kept coming back to "We Are the World." I think this song will be discussed as a landmark that began a new level of collaboration between artists that was rarely seen prior to the work. Additionally, "We Are the World" was certainly a global message that revolutionized the music industry. Genre and racial boundaries were forgotten as the musicians sang the message of hope in an effort to help those less fortunate. Touching lives through music is the ultimate goal of every performer, after all.

What do you think? What criteria would you add to my list? Which song from your lifetime do you think will be discussed as a masterpiece in 200 years? Join the discussion in the comment section of this blog below.

6/13/13 UPDATE:  Here are the songs submitted by my students thus far that they think will have "masterpiece" status in 200 years.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
  • I Believe I Can Fly (R. Kelly)
  • The Cost of Living (Ronnie Dunn)
  • Can't Touch This (MC Hammer)
  • Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  • Gangnam Style (PSY)
  • I'll Be There (Michael Jackson)