I'm trying to like Beethoven's Great Fugue.
"This piece alone completely changed my life and how I perceive and appreciate music."
"Those that claim to love Beethoven but not this are fakers, frauds, wannabees, but most of all are people who are incapable of stopping everything for 10 minutes and reveling in absolute beauty, absolute perfection. Beethoven at his finest."
"This is the absolute peak of Beethoven."
"It's now my favorite piece by Beethoven."
These are some of the comments on the page. Articulate music lovers with excellent taste praise this piece to heaven. Plus, it was written by Beethoven.
It bores me.
The first 2 times I listened to it, it stirred no feelings in me except irritation and impatience for it to be over. I found it lacking in any memorable melody or rhythm, devoid of small-scale or large-scale structure or transitions, aimless, unharmonious, and deficient in melodic or rhythmic coordination between the four parts, none of which I would care to hear by themselves (which is a key measure of the quality of a fugue).
Yet I feel strong pressure to like it. Liking Beethoven's Great Fugue marks you out as a music connoisseur.
I feel pressure to like other things as well. Bitter cabernets, Jackson Pollack paintings, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and Burning Man. This is a pattern common to all arts. You recognize this pattern in a work when:
- The work in question was created by deliberately taking away everything that most people like best about that art form. In the case of wine, sweetness and fruitiness. In the case of Jackson Pollack, form, variety, relevance, and colors not found in vomit. In the music of Alban Berg, basic music theory. In every poem in any volume of "Greatest American Poetry" since 2000, rhyme, rhythm, insight, and/or importance of subject matter. In the case of Burning Man, every possible physical comfort. The work cannot be composed of things that most people appreciate plus things connoisseurs appreciate. It must be difficult to like.
- The level of praise is absurd. The Great Fugue, Beethoven's finest? I'm sorry; my imagination does not stretch that far. "Burning Man changed my life completely" - I liked Burning Man; but if it changed your life completely, you probably had a vapid life.
- People say they hated it at first, but over time, grew to love it. One must be trained to like it.
- The descriptions of why people like it are contradictory. One person says the Great Fugue has a brilliant structure; another says it is great because of its lack of structure.
- The work in question was created late in the history of the art form in question. (This applies at any particular point in time - in 1805, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony would have matched this pattern.)
- Liking the work gives you a big reputation boost within a particular community. Admitting to disliking it is shameful.
In each case, I have these main theories as to how the work became the darling of its genre:
- It is really and truly excellent.
- It is a runaway peacock's-tail phenomenon: Someone made something that stood out in some way, and it got attention; and people learned to like things like that, and so others made things that stood out more in the same way, until we ended up with Alban Berg.
- It is an unstable equilibrium for work of the highest quality to obtain the highest respect. Recognizing high quality is not very difficult, and so the number of people who can recognize high quality is too large for the number of positions that can be accorded respect. It is necessary to find some mark of poor quality, so that most people don't have the patience to convince themselves to like it, that can be used to filter people out. And the most-reliable mark of poor quality is merely the absence of reliable marks of high quality.
- As people learn more about an art form, they can more-easily predict it, and need more and more novelty to keep them interested; like porn viewers who seek out movies with continually-stranger sex acts. (This is a cognitively-plausible variant of "there is no such thing as objective beauty".) If there were departments of pornography at ivy-league universities, they would scoff at the simplicity of films lacking bondage, machines, or animals.
- Practitioners of an art appreciate technique more than content. This is why authors love Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Delaney's Dhalgren; they are full of beautiful phrases and metaphors, and ways of making transitions, and other little tricks that authors can admire and learn to use, even though these books aren't as interesting to readers.
The pattern features I listed that are explained by each of these theories are:
- 2, maybe 5, 6.
- 2, 3, and 5.
- 1, 2, 3, and 6.
- 1, 3, maybe 4, 5, and 6.
- 5 and 6.
(Don't assume that the same theory is true for each of my examples. I think that the wine hierarchy and Alban Berg are nonsense, Jackson Pollack is an interesting one-trick pony, Citizen Kane was revolutionary and is important for cinematographers to study but is boring compared to contemporary movies, and Burning Man is great but would be even greater with showers.)
I could keep listening to the Great Fugue, and see if I, too, come to love it in time. But what would that prove? Of course I would come to love it in time, if I listen to it over and over, earnestly trying to like it, convinced that by liking the Great Fugue I, too, would attain the heights of musical sophistication.
The fact that people come to like it over time is not even suggested by theory 1 - even supposing the music is simply so great as to be beyond the appreciation of the typical listener, why would listening to it repeatedly grant the listener this skill?
I have listened to it a few times, and am growing confused as to whether I like it or not. Why is this? Since when does one have to wonder whether one likes something or not?
I am afraid to keep listening to the Great Fugue. I would come to like it, whether it is great art, or whether it is pretentious garbage. That would not rule out any of my theories.
How can I figure out which it is before listening to it repeatedly?