The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them | June 3, 2017

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Finally I’m being timely in commenting to one of your blogs, Jake! I would never consider Brahms First Symphony a warhorse–I think some works are so great they transcend that label for sure. Your column reminded me that when the Milwaukee Symphony came here about five years ago, they played the first suite of Peer Gynt–and I couldn’t remember the last time I heard it live (probably at the Hollywood Bowl in the 1980s!). I think for a lot composers, I often have a preference to the road less traveled, so to speak: e.g., I love Dvorak’s New World Symphony, but more often than not would enjoy his 8th Symphony more. As for operas, I never tire of Carmen, and am glad it will be hear in the fall again (and balanced nicely by Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April). Thanks as always for your steady and informative work.

    Comment by ghettmansberger — June 3, 2017 @ 11:45 am

  2. The biggest problem with war horses is that listening… concentrating while listening… becomes harder to do. The mind tends to wander because it knows the piece so well.

    Having said that, the mind can “jump back in” quickly and easily because it knows the piece so well.

    I would love to hear Walton’s Symphony 1 played live. I guess I will have to go to Great Britain, where it is a “war horse”.

    Comment by Augustine — June 3, 2017 @ 10:03 am

  3. My favorite warhorses: Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” and the concluding aria of “Madama Butterfly”. Least favorite warhorses: Ravel’s “Bolero” (it’s an earworm for me),
    and Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”.
    I sang in it my senior year in high school and again, my freshman year in college. I’m sick of it!

    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 3, 2017 @ 7:03 am

  4. RE: “Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them.”
    Very well stated. The LAST thing serious music needs is the least whiff snobbery or any possible interference with capture of young people who are the only future security of any art.

    Comment by CHUCK BAUER — June 3, 2017 @ 6:47 am

  5. Flambeau’s point is well taken. But, In a different venue, I recall advice received when I first started programming on radio: Remember, whenever you play the Beethoven 5th, someone is hearing it for the first time.

    Comment by Lclauder — June 3, 2017 @ 6:42 am

  6. A horrible column which I take it is just a means of provoking people to comment.

    It’s not that works like Beethoven’s 5th, or even worse, Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, or their likes, are not good music, but that they are played so, so often and recorded oh so often.

    What I object to about the programming of such war horses is not that they are bad music (almost always they are good music) it is the fact that they are overplayed, and presented as in a church as THE example of what classical music is about. And anyone who knows anything about music likely has a copy or two, or three of that same piece anyway.

    This makes them horribly stifling. They smother other composers’ music and often music by the same composer. And they paper over a dirty fact in classical music: that even the “great masters” on occasion wrote bad music (like the “surprise symphony”): which you would never know if you listened to the likes of the presenters on classical music stations who mention each name in a reverential hush of awe.

    Finally, there is a finite amount of time available for programming for all orchestral/musical groups and on radio too. If one devotes 75% of that to the same pieces (the “war horses”) that hurts other composers and works and numbs the minds of audiences who think that classical music just means Beethoven’s 5th and not Sibelius’s even better 5th or Shostakovitch’s superb 5th.

    And if reliance on playing the “war horses” is bringing people in numbers to classical audiences, that does not seem to fit the facts.

    Comment by FFlambeau — June 3, 2017 @ 12:17 am

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