A hypothetical magical musical power: The one-piece wonder

Raymond Chen

For some reason, I’ve pondered this hypothetical on and off for years: Suppose you were magically granted the ability to perform one piece of music beautifully, but in exchange, you are rendered incapable of playing any other piece at a level higher than beginner.

What instrument and piece should you pick so you can have the longest musical career before you’re found out?

For example, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto is popular and impressive-sounding, and being one of the best interpreters in the world will get you regular work on the classical music circuit. But people are going to get suspicious if that’s the only thing you ever play. And when you get called back on stage by an adoring audience for an encore, people are going to be disappointed that you never oblige.

If you pick a solo piece, will people book you for a recital that consists of a single piece?

If you choose Freebird, knowing that it is still frequently played and requested, would people start wondering why you come on stage to play that one song and nothing else?

I eventually concluded that the best answer is the Turangalîla-Symphonie on the ondes Martenot. (Turangalîla-Symphonie previously.)

You will get regular work because there aren’t a lot of ondes Martenot players in the world. Wikipedia claims that “fewer than 100 people have mastered the ondes Martenot.”

You will never get found out because there are no other pieces of any consequence for the ondes Martenot!

When I posed this question to some friends, one of them replied that he would choose Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. “The orchestra would sit and listen, which means I would get exactly one booking. But, if I was able to play that beautifully just once, I wouldn’t need to play anything else.” I like this answer despite the fact that it rejects the question. (The question isn’t to name the piece that would be most personally satisfying. It’s the one that lets you go the longest without being found out!)

Bonus chatter: Businessman Gilbert Kaplan became enamored with the works of Gustav Mahler, particularly the Second Symphony, named Resurrection. (Mahler’s Second Symphony previously.) Kaplan conducted over 100 performances of the Second Symphony, and no other work.


Discussion is closed. Login to edit/delete existing comments.

  • Drew Cooper 0

    Any Harry Partch piece on any Harry Partch-constructed instrument.

    That would be strange (and wonderful) enough that nobody would notice if there were only one tune.

  • John McPhersonMicrosoft employee 0

    As a non-musical person, I already have the downside, so it would be quite amazing to be able to play anything to the level of the question.

    I would think that the longest possible piece, that is also pleasing to the audience, would be best to achieve the longest career. If you could perform for two hours or more, then you wouldn’t need anything else. You tour on your breathtaking, tear inducing version of ___ and so long as you were willing to go to cities of even moderate size around the world, you could probably tour indefinitely.

    • Scarlet Manuka 0

      The “pleasing to the audience” part is important there. There’s a performance of John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP currently underway that is slated to last for 639 years (https://universes.art/en/specials/john-cage-organ-project-halberstadt). But I don’t think you could make a career out of it…

  • Dave Gzorple 0

    I would play the salpinx (a bronze trumpet with a bone mouthpiece), preferably the fifth, sixth, or seventh one. There would only ever be one performance, and yet my musical career would still last for as long as everyone’s lifetime.

  • Jun-Dai Bates-Kobashigawa 0

    The obvious (to me) answer is the Goldberg Variations. It’s exactly the sort of piece a pianist would obsess over and make a career out of playing all by itself, and if you had a novel and brilliant interpretation you could definitely get paid to play it forever without people thinking it was all _that_ weird. If Glenn Gould had never played anything other than the Goldberg Variations, he would probably be more famous, not less.

    This does raise the question of “what is a piece?”. Do Bach’s 6 cello suites count as “a piece”? If so, it’s another good candidate. If not, why not? What about the Goldberg Variations? The WTC? The four books of Albéniz’ Iberia? The three books of the Années de Pèlerinage? The Art of the Fugue? Chopin Études? Just Op. 10 or 25, or both combined? The Nocturnes? Do Beethoven’s Op. 27 sonatas or Op. 18 quartets count as a single piece? All 18 of Brahms Intermezzi? Just the Op. 117 ones? All six works in Op. 118? Some of these seem clearer than others.

    That said, despite the possible fame and fortune and the tempting ability to play a piece as well as it can possibly be played, there’s no way I would ever accept this tradeoff. I would not enjoy being tied to a single piece of music for so long — I much prefer being able to develop a close relationship with one piece and then move on to another one (I’m on a multiyear journey with Chopin’s Op. 58 right now), and even though I could never play it to a level where it would attract audiences, I’m quite content with my life as it is. And if I had to accept the tradeoff, I would pick a piece that is open to a wide range of interpretation (e.g., Goldberg Variations, Bach Cello Suites, or something by Hindemith) rather than one that is merely insanely difficult or beautiful — assuming that this curse still allowed me to play with my interpretation over the years and that I’m not fixed to a particular way of playing it.

    If, however, you offered me the ability to frictionlessly play one piece per year with a brilliant interpretation, and during that year I could play no other piece… I might accept _that_ offer, though I’d want at least a couple of weeks of struggle to get to that point to really make it worthwhile (I think I would be quite dissatisfied if it really came with no effort at all). In this scenario, I probably wouldn’t go on tour — I think I prefer being a software developer to a performer, but I’d be very pleased with myself and would definitely play it for friends and share it on the internet. In fact, this is not far from my current life, if you replace “frictionlessly” and “with a brilliant interpretation” with “to a mediocre, but listenable level”.

    I often used to think about these sorts of Cassandra-like super powers with a curse. One that really stuck with me was: what would it be like if you could understand every human in every language perfectly, but no one could understand you at all in any language?

    • Neil Rashbrook 0

      That’s easy, you’d just become a Perl programmer 😉

Feedback usabilla icon