I have a real problem with the word masterpiece - what does it really mean? By some people's definitions, nearly everything by Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc. would be considered a masterpiece, by others only perhaps their 20 greatest works each. Still other refer to many pieces by 'minor' composers as masterpieces. There seems to be a difference between 'a masterpiece' and 'a composer's masterpiece', if the composer is not up to the level of the 'true greats'. I am also very skeptical about holding some composers immeasurably far above others. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, seem always to be held in such high regard that people consider virtually nothing else composed as being any where near as good. I go through phases where I think this might be true (esp. Bach) but most of the time, I don't think its true that there is a clear line between a great composer and a very good one. I think great composers just had a knack of creating more great works. But then are there different grades of masterpieces? Are Brahm's masterpieces greater than Barber's masterpieces?
Part of my ongoing quibble with this is the moving target which is the term "masterpiece."
From the old artisan guilds, when one learnt one's trade as an apprentice, the "graduation piece," so to speak, the work which demonstrated mastery
of the craft, the art, was the artisan's masterpiece. Did not mean "the greatest thing he ever did"; but it was a watershed in the artist's career, and it did refer to a single piece of work.
Where phrases like "chef d'oeuvre" seem to me not to mean one work exclusively, but indicates one of probably a set of outstanding creations.
As to the distance between (say) Bach
and (say) Mahler
, in a sense it is immeasurable (how do we measure it?) . . . but more importantly, it isn't a horse race, so "distance" is itself something illusory, yes?
All excellent questions, Guido
, and I'm not sure there are answers.