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Thread: The Idea of a 'Magnum Opus'

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    Default The Idea of a 'Magnum Opus'

    This is just another question that has been on my mind for the past few hours, so I thought I'd share it! It's conveniently facilitated by the other recent thread about a composer outdoing himself, but this question has a slightly different perspective.

    The question is, quite simply, whether or not you believe that the notion of a 'magnum opus' is a useful one. First, to clarify, a 'magnum opus' is the work of a given composer (or any artist) perceived to be their greatest. Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem or his Fourth Symphony are often cited as his magnum opus, but is there any sense in making such distinctions?

    I ask because this idea seems to imply that the composer's greatest achievements are all contained within one piece; there is distilled in this given piece every aspect of the composer's perfected style. In a sense, it epitomises who they are.

    It seems to me, however, that it's more valuable to consider a composer's full oeuvre as a chronological spectrum - a personal and characteristic style that develops over time; the initial, immature pieces being just as characteristic as the (usually late) masterpieces. In terms of form, structure and instrumentation etc., the magnum opus could perhaps be demonstrated as a work of perfected craftsmanship, but I don't think any single work can ever embody every aspect of an individual's artistic philosophy. That is something better viewed as a secondary manifestation of a composer's complete works.

    This seems especially true of more modern composers who often quite easily fluctuate between wildly different styles, making the distinction of a magnum opus utterly pointless, because one piece could never represent more than the one style in which it is composed.

    But what do you think more generally?

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    Senior Member Ignis Fatuus's Avatar
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    I don't think many people claim a masterpiece (if I can use the English) embodies every aspect of a composer's style. And if they do, I suspect they mean, it can be used as a summary of the composers important output.

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    Whether or not a piece is a composer's greatest and best work is debatable, but whether or not a piece is a composer's most popular or significant work is not. And when you are trying to get into a composer, it's certainly more valuable to start with their most popular works and learn to love the composer before you spend time on their lesser known works. But more importantly, it tends to be that the more popular a work is, the more competitive the quality of the performances of that work is. So the quality of the performances and the options you can choose from tend to be much better.

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    I agree it is more valuable to consider the entire career, warts and all, to really appreciate a composer. But that doesn't fit into a soundbyte or a pigeonhole, so important to today's culture of short attention spans. A magnum opus or masterpiece is a good way to create a symbol for the person.

    You would not for instance define Orson Wells as the spokesperson in TV wine advertisements from the 1970's. You might instead define him as the director of Citizen Kane.

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    The Magnum Opus or single masterpiece that towers over every other achievement by a given artist certainly exists in the visual arts: Brunelleschi's Duomo, Michelangelo's Sistine, Giotto's Arena Chapel, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, etc... as well as in literature: Dante's Comedia, Spenser's Fairie Queene, Cervante's Don Quixote, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil and Whitman's Leaves of Grass... but music...? What would Beethoven's Magnum Opus be? The 9th? The String Quartets? The Piano Sonatas? Or Mozart's? Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro? The Great Mass in C? The late piano concertos? Even with Monteverdi I'd be torn between L'Orfeo and the Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610. Hell... I might give Wagner the Ring as his Magnum Opus... but then again... Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are certainly rivals to this. Perhaps with someone like Scarlatti I could imagine his collected sonatas as his Magnum Opus as they are essentially a single body of works... not unlike Whitman's or Baudelaire's great volume of collected poems. Any other ideas?

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    The concept of "magnum opus" is difficult to apply in the case of the greatest composers since, almost by definition, they produced a range of very high quality music across a number of different genres. The only possible exceptions are Chopin and Wagner, who remained largely specialised, but even here their greatness is attributable to the fact that they wrote a lot of music of consistently high or very high quality, which thus makes it difficult to select any particular work as being singularly outstanding. Again, Wagner's "Ring" could be an exception. Perhaps the concept of "magnum opus" in classical music can only apply to lesser composers who may have written a lot of work but only a very small part of it is now generally regarded with any distinction, for example Bruch’s violin concerto, or Holst’s Planets.

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    Translated directly from Latin, Magnum Opus can mean many things but has the same concept. The variants are mostly found in the word Magnum which can indicate:

    Large Work - in which case most composers do have one
    Great Work - I think most composers have one or two of these.
    Important Work - A lot of composers wrote excellent music, but they were not all important. In the historical context there were very few works that are important - Beethovens 9th may be one example.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Weston View Post
    I agree it is more valuable to consider the entire career, warts and all, to really appreciate a composer. But that doesn't fit into a soundbyte or a pigeonhole, so important to today's culture of short attention spans. A magnum opus or masterpiece is a good way to create a symbol for the person.

    You would not for instance define Orson Wells as the spokesperson in TV wine advertisements from the 1970's. You might instead define him as the director of Citizen Kane.
    Do you think that, for the serious listener, the soundbyte-y nature of giving a magnum opus is useful? Has anybody here often acquainted themselves with new composers by finding out what their most important work is?

    I don't doubt that I have introduced myself to new composers through the works that are perceived as their greatest - often quite substantially different to their most popular - but it's not because I went in search of which piece this is. My initial approach to a new composer is usually purely circumstantial - a particular recommendation from someone else; a CD I happen to have etc.. Thus, the purpose of a soundbyte, all-encompassing title has never helped me appreciate new music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Artemis View Post
    The concept of "magnum opus" is difficult to apply in the case of the greatest composers since, almost by definition, they produced a range of very high quality music across a number of different genres.
    Precisely this.

    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge View Post
    Translated directly from Latin, Magnum Opus can mean many things but has the same concept. The variants are mostly found in the word Magnum which can indicate:

    Large Work - in which case most composers do have one
    Great Work - I think most composers have one or two of these.
    Important Work - A lot of composers wrote excellent music, but they were not all important. In the historical context there were very few works that are important - Beethovens 9th may be one example.
    The 'large work' point has me groaning, but that is how critics tend to assess things. Larger works tend to be towards the end of a composer's work when they might feel they can get more ambitious. So a late large work is likely to send music critics into ecstasy, even if it isn't perhaps as successful as a smaller scale work by the same composer in the same genre.

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    The question is, quite simply, whether or not you believe that the notion of a 'magnum opus' is a useful one
    Not really. Once you get to know the composer you realize that the obscure, unknown and less-known pieces can if fact be very, very good. I can even argue that it's not even useful to the beginners - say, Beethoven's Ninth, it's a great work, but it's not what Ludwig usually wrote. Shostakovich's "Leningrad Symphony"? Indeed a masterpiece, but the sixth, a relatively obscure work, in fact, would tell you much more about the composer. And etc.
    Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.

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    Honestly, I don't believe in any kind of Magnum Opus. A piece doesn't have to be striking to be great, nor does it have to be characteristically docile, refrained, and sweet. Everyone has differing tastes even within the same composer. Alkan's Esquisses are every bit as great as his concertos for solo piano.

    So if I ever could put a finger on just one piece, I'd tell myself "How could you be that lacking in perspective?" That, and a lot of composers write so very many pieces that just strike a chord. It would be exceedingly difficult, even with common standards, to say that the Brandenburg Concertos or Italian Concerto is Bach's Magnum Opus.
    "Your mathematics are correct, but your physics are abominable..." Einstein

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    Not many composers can really be assigned a "magnum opus" that is truly their best and most important work. Maybe one-hit wonders like Humperdinck or Nicolai can each be given a "magnum opus" but there'll always be somebody out there arguing that they had other important and unjustly neglected works too.

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    I tend to think that a "magnum opus" idea is a good thing for someone new to the composer in question (i.e. Tapiola being Sibelius', the B minor mass being Bach's, etc.), to get an idea of what the composer is about--like noted above. However, for people who are very knowledgeable about the composer's work, the term becomes totally useless (I, for one, vastly prefer Mahler's 3rd over his 5th).

    So really I think that such a question is one of those that changes depending upon who is considering the composer.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Ignis Fatuus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by World Violist View Post
    I tend to think that a "magnum opus" idea is a good thing for someone new to the composer in question (i.e. Tapiola being Sibelius', the B minor mass being Bach's, etc.), to get an idea of what the composer is about--like noted above. However, for people who are very knowledgeable about the composer's work, the term becomes totally useless (I, for one, vastly prefer Mahler's 3rd over his 5th).

    So really I think that such a question is one of those that changes depending upon who is considering the composer.
    That my opinion too. It's a useful concept to some extent. And when it stops being useful, we abandon it.

    Having said that, has anyone heard any music by Holst and Allegri (beyond the Planets Suite and Miserere Me)?

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    Quote Originally Posted by World Violist View Post
    I tend to think that a "magnum opus" idea is a good thing for someone new to the composer in question (i.e. Tapiola being Sibelius', the B minor mass being Bach's, etc.), to get an idea of what the composer is about--like noted above. However, for people who are very knowledgeable about the composer's work, the term becomes totally useless (I, for one, vastly prefer Mahler's 3rd over his 5th).
    But some people may not like the B Minor Mass or Tapiola as much as other pieces by those composers.

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