- Tim Mangan gets off a good one.
- Steve Hicken proposes some criteria.
- Daniel Wolf makes some important points.
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.