Friday, January 14, 2011

A Bit More on the Top Ten Business

Some apposite commentary elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Steve and I talk about criteria the other day, actually, and everything I say below owes a good deal to him. 

If you're following the comments section of Anthony Tommasini's original article, you'll see that there are nearly 800 postings. Tommasini was able to reply in line to some of them, including to my original, very early comment, saying he should be considering composers before Bach, because there's plenty of greatness in Hildegard, Machaut, Power, Dunstaple, Dufay, Josquin, Lassus, Monteverdi, Schuetz, Biber, and so on. His response asked about criteria: how do you compare Schumann and Dufay when they're so different? Here's what I said:

Don't know whether you will see this in the giant list of responses, and there's no way to insert a reply in line with your response to me. You ask how one compares Dufay to Schumann. Well, how does one compare Beethoven to Schumann? Sure, they're stylistically much closer, but still. I would use similar criteria for all of these decisions: importance in own time (Dufay was known internationally); influence on peers; opinions of peers; critical reception (contemporary and continuing); technical skill; innovation; staying power. Add in other criteria as you wish. Breadth of production, as with Mozart, is certainly one potential criterion.
For composers before Bach, staying power is tough because of the demand and expectation that there would be new work on a constant basis. (And even for composers contemporary with Bach: how many Handel operas were performed between his death and the revival of Rodelinda in 1932?) And composers are constantly being discovered or rediscovered. You were in music school a few years before me, but probably we both used Grout. Did you ever hear of Biber before the last ten or 15 years? If so, you were way ahead of me, and he's a tremendous composer. (Thank you, Andrew Manze.)

So we don't really have staying power to go by with composers of the 17th century and earlier; in the present day, the audience for early music is very much a niche audience. Still, the other criteria remain valid. 


Kevin said...

Here's an idea: how about the top ten award shows for award shows?

You know, the more I consider Tony's article, the more I have to concede that, yes, it's a fools' errand and, also, the more it's a strategically beautiful ploy for response, since anyone can be a critic, or, as Ratatouille would lead us to believe, anyone can cook.

There's no option but to agree to disagree.

calimac said...

You write, "You ask how one compares Dufay to Schumann. Well, how does one compare Beethoven to Schumann?"

And then you answer your own question: "Sure, they're stylistically much closer."

Because Beethoven and Schumann were doing much more closely the same thing as each other, it's possible to compare their achievement at it, in a way it's not possibly with composers whose artistic styles, and aesthetic aims, differ as much as Schumann and Dufay.

The criteria you offer seem to me not to be judgments of the music directly, but to view it only at a distant remove through its effect. In which case I think it's better to just measure those criteria individually, and some of them (critical reception, breadth) can be measured fairly objectively.

This is why I think even the range that Tommasini set himself (High Baroque to dead before last week) is too broad. I'd do direct quality comparisons only over a much narrower range than that. Who's the greatest composer of the First Viennese School? (I still vote for Beethoven over Mozart.) Who's the greatest composer of the Second Viennese School? (Berg, by a long shot.) Questions like that I can handle. Ten greatest of the later Western tradition, no.

Joe Barron said...

This is why I don't like lists. All this argument over criteria and whether one name or another gets to be included within an arbitrary number. What's so magical about ten? And then who's number twelve? Or nineteen? Or 137? And when you get the names whittled down, what exactly, have you proved? How are we any wiser than we were before? My criterion is what I listen to. After that, Tomassini and ACD can go screw. - Well, not really, of course. I recognize that writing history and criticism does involve judgment and ranking, and I've often said the shortest of short lists for the "greatest" would have be Bach, Beethoven and Mozart - that is to say, this is the list from which no name, in my view, could reasonably be removed. But all this top ten and top 100 business just seems pointless and arbitrary. It serves no purpose other than to generate argument among people who should otherwise be united in the cause of great music. It reminds of the joke about the two Jews stranded on a desert island: each builds his own synagogue because he can't stand the people who go to the other one.

Joe Barron said...

>>Who's the greatest composer of the Second Viennese School? (Berg, by a long shot.)

And yet I prefer Schoenberg. Sigh.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Tommasini's criteria don't seem to include comparing the music directly, and...well, that's hard to measure in any kind of objective way. How do you, personally, compare Schumann and Beethoven?

I would have a really tough time choosing between Beethoven and Mozart for greatest composer of the First Viennese School. I must mention that conductor Kenneth Woods makes quite an interest case for Haydn as a greater composer than Mozart. It is on his blog, A View from the Podium, someplace, last year. Interesting as in plausible, worth considering, etc.

Lisa Hirsch said...

My response above is to calimac. Clarification: what methods do you, personally, use to compare the music of Schumann and Beethoven? is what I meant.

Joe, I'm sorry - I missed your comments until I published them just now. I must have glanced at them on my phone last night and forgotten to publish them.

Of course you are right about the whole list business and number of items on it! Your criterion is an excellent one. Oh, ah, that is a hilarious joke. Didn't you say you were raised Catholic? :)

I love all of the Second Viennese School composers, can't really say which is the greatest, though I think Berg is the most appealing on the surface.

Joe Barron said...

>>Didn't you say you were raised Catholic? :)

Well, sure, but there are no good Catholic jokes that don't involve child molestation. Now that I think about it, the story is that one Jew was stranded on the island. He built two synagogues and refused to set foot into the other one.

Henry Holland said...

I'll admit it, I love lists, maybe it's because I'm a huge sports fan and Best Ever lists are great bar chat fodder and you can use stats to give your 10 Greatest Center Fielders EVAH list some validity (Willie Mays is #1, of course).

Can't do that with music, obviously. I try to be objective, look at the composers historical importance, their hit-to-miss ratio, were they innovators in their time period and so on.

I like the back-and-forth, I've discovered some great music by people passionately arguing for their favorites like I do for Franz Schreker's operas.

Joe Barron said...

My reaction to Tomassini's final Top 10 list (No. 300 something in the Times comments page):

Nice, safe list. Nothing to disagree with, but nothing to get excited over, either. It's the names that didn't make it - but that "get me through my days," as you say - that call the whole list-making enterprise into question. If you love something that isn't demonstrably great, or not demonstrably as great as something else, then, it seems to me, the so-called objective criteria for greatness must lack some important element. Subjectivity must be served, and it precisely such subjective reactions I find more interesting than discussions of range and influence or historical importance.

My favorite dead composers include Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, who have taken me places no one else has, but I can see why a NYT critic would not include them on his list. On the other hand, I dislike Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and I doubt any list or any amount of argument is going to convert me.

Maybe ten slots just isn't enough. A hundred probably wouldn't be, either.