Thinking of classics and enigmas

The Enigma Post-concert Discussion in the Overlook Room
The Enigma Post-concert Discussion in the Overlook Room

This past Sunday’s concert included a workshop and post-concert discussion led by teaching artist Christina Farrell.  For Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the easy choice of topics would be to look at three enigmas directly presented by Elgar.  But as we talked, conversation covered another topic, does the direction or intent of the creator of a piece play into the performance of the piece?  And from there, what makes a creative work worthy of being one of the classics?

To be sure, the use of hidden themes and puzzles within musical works has been done before and since.  Several composers have pieces full of references to friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries.  But this is par for the course in the classics.  My high school English teacher was fond of saying that the Greek classics include everything.  Participants in one web site that focuses on identifying themes in movies and TV shows delight in noting that certain themes have very old origins.  But this does not lessen the treatment of these themes or use of these tropes.  There must be another criteria.

I am involved in a creative field.  And in my field, some works are known and viewed as seminal works, definitive in their topic over anything before or since and viewed as original contributions of high degree and quality.  Yet even these explicitly reference the works of others, not all of which are in themselves worthy of the same acclaim.  The creators and all those who are qualified to review the work will acknowledge it openly, but something separates these from others of their kind.

Mortimer Alder once wrote an introduction to one collection of Great Books.  In it he describes three criteria that he and his fellow collaborators used to choose and cull that collection.  One was the work’s contemporary significance (which implied that it was timeless beyond the period of original creation); second was its re-readability, or the fact that the work could be read again and again, with deeper understanding every time; third was its relevance to a number of great ideas that occupied a number of great thinkers before and since, the participation in the work in the great conversation through the author’s reading of related works of before, and the development of ideas that have inspired reaction from those who follow.

And here in music, it is not just the theme or subject of the work that makes it meet similar criteria.  The price of admission into a classic worth listening repeatedly is the quality of the music.  But if it was only quality we cared about, we may stop listening to new music, because there is more than enough of the traditional classics of quality to keep us wonderfully engaged.  But to add to what has come before a work must also have something to say.  A response to what has come before, and something that is worth responding to.

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