True musical masterworks are incredibly rare. I mean, there are lots of musical works I really like a lot, but few of those are what I would consider masterpiece material. I am always at a loss for an answer to music preference inquiries. What’s your favorite song? As if the question could be answered honestly and accurately by a single, basically meaningless response. You know you are dealing with trouble if the asker really thinks the askee has such keen and confident personal discernment; or worse, the askee’s one and only favorite song is exactly the same as the asker.
I’ve never encountered a masterwork that carried the distinction of being a person’s one and only favorite song. Desperado is not a magnum opus. Pachebel’s Canon in D isn’t either. Neither is Moonlight Sonata, Für Elise, Free Bird, or She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (although I happen to really like Beethoven and the Beatles a whole bunch). I’ve never known anyone that volunteered Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, J.S. Bach’s Flute Sonata in e minor, or John Williams’ Hymn for the Fallen as their exclusive favorite. So, in defining a musical masterwork let us not, therefore, equate genius with mere popularity.
What’s the character test of a musical tour de force?
Is it wholly dependent on sound or technique or instrumentation? Is it symbolic of a certain perspective, philosophy, or social issue? Does it reflect the world that holds it or does it represent something smaller—for example, a composer’s outward response to inward emotion? Does it tell a story, reveal a mystery, or create an image? Does it invoke laughter? Weeping? Does it make demands on the listener or require its performers to interpret the most intricate and invisible threads of melody with or without their own unique contribution to the meaning?
The answer is singular: Yes.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly Leonard Bernstein
Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
Appalachian Spring Aaron Copland
God Be In My Head John Rutter
Pavane Gabriel Faure
A Remark You Made Josef Zawinul
Veni Sancte Spiritus George Fenton
Rhapsody in Blue George Gershwin
Salvation is Created Pavel Tschesnikov