BCP#5 What makes a masterpiece?
Being in daily conversation with great works of art is transformative.
Today I began my practice routine with a step back in history to Bach's monumental Chaconne in d minor, to keep my technique and imagination fresh and active, in the process of working on the Beethoven. Beethoven wouldn't have existed without the footsteps of Bach leading the way - there's a reason these guys are two of classical music's renowned "Three Bs" (Brahms being the third).
After a recent concert I played, the performers went to a late dinner with the hosts of the evening, and we had a conversation about what makes a masterpiece. We were speaking of our favorite books, about rereading some of them years after we first loved them. Some of them gained new relevance when we brought ourselves back to them after years of separation, and some sadly seemed mired in their own time, a reflection of our youth when we read them. We discussed Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which has such beauty and wisdom in it, but which several of us found a bit more rigid and two-dimensional when we read it a second time (particularly regarding the roles available to women at the time, and the motives assigned to them). My friend Pat said that unlike that book, War and Peace remains vital and current, and seems to change with him each time he reads it. I confess to not having read this work, but I do know that experience of exilharation when I’ve found a book or piece of music that seems to have no limit to what it can teach me, no matter how many times in my life I return to it. This is how it is with Bach’s Chaconne. I first learned it when I was a teenager, and I remember spelling the chords out on a piano keyboard when I didn’t yet have the skill to play them on the violin. The music is of such amazing quality that every facet of it can be admired and studied separately without losing any of its beauty and wonder. What I mean is that I could sit and plunk out simple chords from it as a young girl at the piano, and the depth and perfection of the harmony alone would be enough to fill me with joy and give me wonderful challenges to digest and work on. I’ve come back to the piece over and over through the years, and each time I’ve found layers of previously undiscovered beauty in its design. It doesn’t matter how experienced or smart I get as I grow and change—it always has more in store for me. I think this may be the hallmark of a masterpiece.
How many things can we say this about? So many stories and songs of our childhood wind up being valued mostly because of nostalgia as we get older, not because they have new things to teach us. Sadly, this is even true of many relationships—some simply cannot stand the test of time, and even our deepest and most hopeful commitments sometimes become skins we shed and leave behind as we grow out of them.
So I feel incredibly grateful for for the relationships with people and music that I'm lucky enough to keep learning from. I don't grow out of Bach and Beethoven - I continue to grow into them.