25 Random Thoughts about Music, Inspired by Yet Another Commencement

25 Random Thoughts about Music, Inspired by Yet Another Commencement

[Ed. Note: It’s been over four years since Steve Metcalf’s prose last graced these pages, so we were curious to hear what he’s been thinking about these days. This chain of aphoristic responses he sent to us is vintage Metcalf: simultaneously down to earth and wise, pithy and succinct but not always tweetable.—FJO]

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1. After 55 years, Le marteau sans maître is still a drag.

2. To paraphrase André Previn, when I go to hear a piece of music that I think is important or that I love, I’m not all that interested in who’s playing.

3. The Beatles’ most revolutionary, ground-breaking tune was not “A Day in the Life” or “I am the Walrus”; it was “Rain.”

4. Wagner’s remark that Beethoven’s Seventh is “the apotheosis of the dance” should be banned from program notes for at least the next decade, partly on the grounds of overuse, partly on the grounds of fatuousness.

5. As I get older, a few pieces seem to me to transcend their time and even their genre; examples would be Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George.

6. As great as he is, Dylan has made no particular progress musically in nearly 50 years, while his contemporary Paul Simon has made an immense, possibly unparalleled musical journey as a composer.

7. Imagine if Sibelius had kept on composing for the last 30 years of his life, instead of, well, not.

8. Or similarly—thinking here of certain amazing harmonies in Turandot—imagine if Puccini had been given a life as long as Verdi’s, and had thus been able to write at least another three or four major operas.

9. Classical music criticism—at least that portion of it devoted to critiquing performances of standard repertoire by artists who know what they’re doing—has become basically meaningless. Except, of course, as a source of blurbs for artists’ press kits.

10. Among the music biographies every conservatory student should read: Barzun’s Berlioz and His Century, (the original longer version, Berlioz and the Romantic Century seems to be out of print); and Peter Guralnick’s two volumes about Elvis and his times, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.

11. Bassist James Jamerson was truly one of the most innovative musical minds of the 20th century.

12. Opera cannot survive as an art form with just a couple of dozen or so works in the active repertoire of most houses, which is about what it’s down to, if that.

13. Overrated: The idea that pre-concert talks will increase audiences.

14. Underrated: Sammy Davis, Jr. as a singer of standards.

15. Among the great pop tunes of my lifetime that I wish I had written: “You Don’t Know Me,” “What’s Going On,” “God Only Knows,” “A Case of You,” “Half Heaven, Half Heartache.”

16. The newest addition to my I Wish I Could Have Had Dinner With… list of musicians who have gone to their reward: Artie Shaw (based on having just read the new biography of Artie by Tom Nolan).

17. If serious music is to have any kind of halfway healthy future, it has to figure out ways to make the live concert experience more interesting. Or at least shorter.

18. “Allowing” clapping between movements, if people are so moved: I definitely thought this one would have been a settled issue by now.

19. People continue to engage Elton John to write the scores to Broadway shows. Why?

20. For music in our time, the most significant technological development is the iPod’s “shuffle” function.

21. Every parent of small children, if they can possibly swing it, should put an acoustic piano in the house. A real piano, that is—not a crummy electronic keyboard “to see if they show any interest.”

22. Two years ago, I was having dinner with a group of very accomplished classical musicians, and the conversation, which was about the plight of contemporary music, was going nowhere, bringing everybody down. Then someone mentioned an exciting new piece she had just heard and the whole table virtually jumped to its feet in enthusiastic agreement. The piece? “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyonce.

23. Andre Rieu is a phony.

24. The Great American Songbook is still being added to. It’s just that in our fragmented musical marketplace, new songs have a harder time being widely disseminated and therefore they take much longer to become “standards.”

25. I still don’t get Bruckner.


Steve Metcalf
Photo by Paul Cryan

Steve Metcalf was the staff classical music critic for the Hartford Courant for over 20 years, beginning in 1980. He has also been a regular commentator for NPR’s Performance Today and a contributor to numerous musical publications. In 2002, he accepted a buyout from the Courant’s owners, the Tribune Company of Chicago. Since then, in addition to doing freelance journalism and composing, he has been serving as a consultant for several arts organizations, including Hartford’s main performance hall, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Metcalf is currently director of instrumental studies at The Hartt School.

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