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Thread: Substance.

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    Newbies SeanW's Avatar
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    Default Substance.

    Hello, my name is Sean (obviously!), I'm new here, and yes this is my first post. I've been "lurking" on this forum and others for a while as an enthusiast of classical music, and would like to know your opinion on something!

    What is "substance"? As a fan of Mozart, it's something that comes up a lot: "Mozart sounds pretty but his music lacks substance!". I'm just curious, in your opinion, as to how one would describe "substance" within music.

    No, this is not an argument, I don't want to "challenge" you to make a point that Mozart has substance or something, I'm just genuinely curious. All replies are, of course, welcome!

    Cheers!
    Last edited by SeanW; Jul-20-2011 at 02:39.

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    Senior Member regressivetransphobe's Avatar
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    What is "substance"? As a fan of Mozart (yes, him!) it's something that comes up a lot: "Mozart sounds pretty but his music lacks substance!
    In this case, it's a cliche dismissal that shouldn't be read into too much. When they say it like this they're probably equating substance with drama and hardship, because as we know Mozart lived a not particularly tragic life and wrote a good deal of "easy" music for his time. (Contrast to bleeding hearts like Beethoven/Mahler.)

    Substance is important but it's a vague word and should be elaborated on whenever it's used. To me it's compositional integrity in any sense. If a melody would be enjoyable no matter whether it was played by an orchestra, banjo or cheap MIDI, then I think it's safe to say it has substance.
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    Senior Member waldvogel's Avatar
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    If a composer writes music that you have to listen to twenty times, preferably with you having the score in one hand and a critique in the other, before you "get it", that composer is described as "having substance".

    If another composer writes equally complex music whose beauty becomes apparent at the first listening, he is described as "lacking substance", no matter how much further listening deepens your appreciation for his music.

    Critics who don't have a clue will rate the following composers as "lacking substance": Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky; possibly Chopin and Mendelssohn. This comes from the critics' in-depth knowledge of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", "Ave Maria", and "1812 Overture" as truly representative works of those composers. When these critics are reminded of the Jupiter Symphony, C Major Quintet, or Eugene Onegin, they change the subject to how much "substance" there is in Boulez' "Le marteau sans maitre"...
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    Actually, Mozart's music has a lot going on both under the surface and on the surface. Music of his caliber requires deeper study than just a superficial hearing.

    As Charles Rosen said of the first movement of his G minor symphony, it's like a woman who is so beautiful you don't notice how sad she is.
    Last edited by Manxfeeder; Jul-20-2011 at 02:38.

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    Senior Member crmoorhead's Avatar
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    Yeah, Tchaikovsky is often accused of lacking substance by, supposedly, writing music that it too emotional. Tchaikovsky put whatever mood he was trying to portray in a particular piece into it in bucketloads. Personally, I love the gushing, thumping, melodrama of his works - if you are going to say something, might as well do it in CAPITAL LETTERS. And, of course, that is a gross overgeneralisation of his works. There are lots of more subtle pieces that are just overshadowed by the 1812 and the Romeo and Juliet Overture, among others. Generally, accusations of lack of substance are levelled by people who are bored of the popularity of some pieces that are universally recognised by the average Joe. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.
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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SeanW View Post
    [...]
    What is "substance"? As a fan of Mozart, it's something that comes up a lot: "Mozart sounds pretty but his music lacks substance!". I'm just curious, in your opinion, as to how one would describe "substance" within music.

    No, this is not an argument, I don't want to "challenge" you to make a point that Mozart has substance or something, I'm just genuinely curious. All replies are, of course, welcome!

    Cheers!
    "All replies" may not be welcome. You are posing a question to which you already 'know' the answer. Looks like it has served its purpose though, so congrats.
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    I've always taken 'substance' in a musical context to suggest 'more beneath the surface'. An artist has put enough into a work that it is intriguing on more than one level, and/or the work has a certain denseness that usually can only be fully revealed after more than one listen. These works may or may not be immediately gratifying on first listen.
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    Senior Member regressivetransphobe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hilltroll72 View Post
    "All replies" may not be welcome. You are posing a question to which you already 'know' the answer. Looks like it has served its purpose though, so congrats.
    Yeah definitely, I

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    Newbies SeanW's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hilltroll72 View Post
    "All replies" may not be welcome. You are posing a question to which you already 'know' the answer. Looks like it has served its purpose though, so congrats.
    Yes, all replies are welcome. I'm afraid I do not know the answer, as each persons' interpretation would be different. I also suppose it has served its' purpose since some people replied with what their opinion of "substance" is. Very interesting!

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    There is a certain prejudice not only against Mozart (and Tchaikovsky) but also against certain writers and artists whose work is seen as "too beautiful". Unfortunately, some make the assumption that tragedy and angst and other "darker" emotions are easier to convey (and convey masterfully) than joy, and wit, and humor and thus signify something more "profound"... something of greater substance. Of course this is but nonsense. Don Qixote and Tristram Shandy are in no way inferior as novels to The Brothers Karamazov or Les Miserable because they focus more upon comedy and wit.

    Ultimately, I am in agreement with Oscar Wilde who declared, "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." The failure to recognize real "substance" in the work of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, etc... is not a failure upon the part of the listener far more than upon the part of the composer.
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    Senior Member science's Avatar
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    I suppose if I'd ever read or heard that Mozart lacked substance, I'd been able to ignore that.

    If I couldn't ignore it, I'd try really hard.

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    Senior Member Stasou's Avatar
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    Sometimes I think people try to make listening too difficult. Is there really a point in trying to find something wrong in every composition ever created? If it sounds good, who needs substance anyway?
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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by regressivetransphobe View Post
    In this case, it's a cliche dismissal that shouldn't be read into too much. When they say it like this they're probably equating substance with drama and hardship, because as we know Mozart lived a not particularly tragic life and wrote a good deal of "easy" music for his time. (Contrast to bleeding hearts like Beethoven/Mahler.)
    Often, listeners may be more concerns about the life of a composer rather than their music. Sometimes, this tendency to experience music combined with an obsession with “psycho-biographies” can actually cloud our ability to just simply take in the music (take it on it’s own terms/merits, etc.)

    Substance is important but it's a vague word and should be elaborated on whenever it's used. To me it's compositional integrity in any sense. If a melody would be enjoyable no matter whether it was played by an orchestra, banjo or cheap MIDI, then I think it's safe to say it has substance.
    That’s true, and a related issue is that some audiophiles get so obsessed with things like recording quality, that they lose sight of the essence of the music. I listen to all kinds of recordings, from the ancient ones on wax cylinders to the modern digital & SACD ones. My focus with all these tends to be the music, rather than the quality of the recording. I’m not saying that’s also important, of course it is, but it’s not the be all & end all.

    Quote Originally Posted by Manxfeeder View Post
    Actually, Mozart's music has a lot going on both under the surface and on the surface. Music of his caliber requires deeper study than just a superficial hearing.
    This is true, a lot of these masterpieces are not well served if one just listens to them once & dismisses them for whatever reason – eg. Judging things as superficial, too heavy, not well orchestrated, whatever doesn’t really speak to giving these things a “fair go” so to speak.

    Quote Originally Posted by crmoorhead View Post
    …Generally, accusations of lack of substance are levelled by people who are bored of the popularity of some pieces that are universally recognised by the average Joe. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.
    I agree with this, a number of people I’ve come across virtually on other forums detest things like Ravel’s Bolero, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, Mozart’s Eine Kliene, basically anything that has sold lots of records & is generally known by "the great unwashed." I’ve even been known to get into this negative vibe myself, criticizing composers like Saint-Saens on this very forum in the distant past, but now that I’ve simply listened to the man’s music rather than bullsh*ting, I’ve come to enjoy it heaps. Last year, I went to a performance of his Carnival of the Animals, and it was a lot of fun, quirky, imaginative, even profound (the famous dying swan bit). Sometimes, the more people get into the more kind of obscure or esoteric composers, they begin to develop snobbish attitudes about the more popular things. I don’t think that makes any sense. It has more to do with ideology than commonsense, musical or otherwise.

    Quote Originally Posted by StlukesguildOhio View Post
    There is a certain prejudice not only against Mozart (and Tchaikovsky) but also against certain writers and artists whose work is seen as "too beautiful". Unfortunately, some make the assumption that tragedy and angst and other "darker" emotions are easier to convey (and convey masterfully) than joy, and wit, and humor and thus signify something more "profound"... something of greater substance. Of course this is but nonsense. Don Qixote and Tristram Shandy are in no way inferior as novels to The Brothers Karamazov or Les Miserable because they focus more upon comedy and wit.
    This makes me remember, a high school teacher of mine used to tell us often that writing a comedy is no more easy than writing a drama or tragedy. Indeed, he said that sometimes it’s harder to write good comedy, as with that, you kind of have to make the audience come out of their shell a bit, let their hair down, that sort of thing. Berlioz said that guys like Donizetti & Rossini (speaking to their comic operas esp., that were conquering the Parisian stage at the time) were more like good cooks but composers of little or no substance or real musical merit. Again, his argument was more based on nationalism & sour grapes more than real objective judgement (don’t get me wrong, I love BOTH Berlioz & the Italians, but for different reasons).

    Quote Originally Posted by Stasou View Post
    Sometimes I think people try to make listening too difficult. Is there really a point in trying to find something wrong in every composition ever created? If it sounds good, who needs substance anyway?
    That’s right, I think it’s wise to kind of “cut the cr*p” & just “go with the flow” of where the music takes you. It’s the old adage of the glass half empty rather than it being half full. I’d rather be positive than negative about these things. If a composer gives me 5 per cent on the first listen, s/he may well give me 10 or 15 per cent the next listen, and more on the third listen & so on. Of course, these things are impossible to quantify. Yet here we are often making “rankings” and “lists” of the great masterpieces. I don’t really know if it’s necessary to do that???...
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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SeanW View Post
    Hello, my name is Sean (obviously!), I'm new here, and yes this is my first post. I've been "lurking" on this forum and others for a while as an enthusiast of classical music, and would like to know your opinion on something!

    What is "substance"? As a fan of Mozart, it's something that comes up a lot: "Mozart sounds pretty but his music lacks substance!". I'm just curious, in your opinion, as to how one would describe "substance" within music.

    No, this is not an argument, I don't want to "challenge" you to make a point that Mozart has substance or something, I'm just genuinely curious. All replies are, of course, welcome!

    Cheers!
    I often (but not always) like to think of it as relative substance rather than absolute substance. It's easier to compare the relative substance of Mozart's music versus Antonio Salieri's for example, even though Salieri was still an able composer capable of writing music of substance.
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    Senior Member Xaltotun's Avatar
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    I think, if a musical piece makes me come back to it again and again, if it rewards me with repeated listens, not as background music but as something that I keep sinking into and it keeps up my interest, then it has substance, regardless of its complexity, accessibility or temper.
    Sid James and samurai like this.
    Music is not the sounds you hear

    Music is not the notes you see

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