A Balancing Act.

Ever so often, whether it be for exams, recitals or competitions, musicians are asked to prepare a ‘balanced’ program. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate an understanding of ‘a wide variety of styles and techniques.’

Yet the very term ‘balanced program’ makes me frown. Often at the double standards that it has come to represent in classical music.

Let’s be semantic.

The Semantic Marmot strikes back! I hope you like pears.

Balanced Program: A series of musical works of harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements, as in a design.

Sounds rather vague and subjective, does it not? It does.

Specifically, it causes me great pain: as many teachers, examiners and audiences use the term ‘balanced program’ as a cover for ‘works from standard eras by well-known composers.’ I guess this in itself sounds fair enough, except that the very definitions of ‘musical era’ is commonly held askew and is misleading.

It is understandable that much ‘Western’ classical music was based in and around Europe up to the Baroque era. As such it was relatively standardised in that composers really had to conform to the demands of aristocratic and theological circles. An Age of patronAge. The same applies to a lesser degree to the Classical period, still more or less Europe based… But where do we put  someone like Scarlatti? Do we apply chronologically definite years? Or is how the composer wrote more important? I think more the latter, although this is not always allowed in program guidelines, and more importantly it assumes composers wrote the same way for their entire life. Anyway – that’s but a minor niggle, and a convenient loophole at times – one can easily find three classical-sounding composers from late 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s, thus fitting the definition of three chronological ‘eras.’ I digress.

Romantic era. Yes, I guess that is also quite definable and encompassing. Including late Russian Romanticism into the 1940’s.

Russian Hat Piece And/Or Winter Delicacy.

But my main concern, dear reader, is for the Modern period. Where countries-other-than-the-European-ones began to produce composers of note. Where schools of thought (I hate schools of thought – it implies closed-mindedness) began to form around certain composers and styles. Where experimentation and integration of the new and the old began to occur. Where some composers wrote not for audiences but to them. Patronage, and even audience-gratifying took a back seat. And then so too did classical music I guess, (ie: kicking in the back seat), in favour of more popular styles and tastes. And so on.

The problem is that all this wild, wild diversity is classified as ‘Modern.’ Just one piece please. As a novelty. No more.

And thus this is a culture of unfair hypocrisy.

Take a look at the AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) Syllabus for their LMus piano qualification. They provide four categories for creating your very own ‘balanced program.’

According to these, the following program is acceptable:

List A) Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue No.8

List B) Scriabin: Sonata Fantasy in G# minor, Op.22

List C) Rachmaninoff: Etude Tableaux Op.39 No.1

List D) Prokofiev: Sonata No.3

Let’s graph these dates:

Program from Guide Lists

Hmmm. All within 54 years of one another.

Hmmm. All by Russian Late-Romantic Composers.

But no. That’s balanced.

Everything is just fine. Thank you for asking.

But what about this: (If we choose the option to devise our own program from the set list)

List A) Carl Vine: Piano Sonata No.1

List B) Messiaen: Vingt Regards sure l’Enfant Jesus No.19

List B 2) Schoenberg: No.3 from Three Pieces

List B 3) Barber: Ballade, Op.46.

Tsk. Tsk. Absolutely not! Those are all ‘Modern’ pieces.

But let’s graph them anyway.


Program of Own Choosing

Oh. Look at that! Some 81 years difference. Instead of 54. So perhaps that means more diversity? ‘No, it’s all Modern.’

But what about the fact that the composers are Australian, French, German, and American? ‘No. it’s all Modern.’

Well how about the fact that the styles are Dance/Jazz based, Experimental, Atonal Expressionism, and Neo-Romantic? ‘No. They are all to be classified as Modern.’ *smack on nose with newspaper*

So. If you want to provide a ‘balanced program’ of musical styles and colours, apparently by just playing the Russian Late Romantics you’ll be covered.



In summary, many musicians today assume anything non-standard in classical music composed, or sounding like it was composed after 1900 is all modern and therefore cannot be played more than once at risk of sounding unbalanced. But playing the well-knowns, regardless of their geographic and chronological proximity is ok as long as they fit into pre-established categories.

Look at Mozart, Schubert and Chopin. Three composers. Fifty years and two countries between them. All tonal, with key signatures and everything. Nothing relatively dramatic in terms of musical differences except progressively more ‘romantic,’ ie; louder, longer and more chromaticism. But it’s a perfect balance, as is commonly testified in countless recital programs. And of course such a combination can be balanced – rather my point is that then saying over a hundred years of intensive and diverse musical development and global involvement fits all under the one category is purely hypocritical.

The rational judgement is missing.

“A series of musical works of harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements, as in a design.”

If a program works, it works.


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