Monday, January 10, 2011

Top Ten Composers: A Fool's Errand

Over at the NY Times, Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic, has undertaken the challenge of naming the top ten composers of the Western notational tradition....no, wait. He hasn't. He's undertaken the challenge of naming the top ten composers of the Western notational tradition since the high Baroque.

Over at Sounds & Fury, A.C. Douglas is claiming Tommasini has big balls; he's also naming his own top ten, none of which will surprise you.

Both of youse: forget it.

For ACD: Tommasini gives it away in his opening paragraphs, where he talks about top ten and top 100 lists in other fields (best 100 books in English, best films, etc.). I'd bet that a Times editor dreamed up this stunt. The idea has nothing to do with Tommasini's guts or manhood, and he loses exactly nothing by going through with the exercise. It has to do with marketing: someone had the undoubtedly correct idea that a feature like this, spread out over a week or more, complete with video and audio examples, would attract eyes. I own that it's an entertaining exercise, at the very least.

For Tony: Dodging around the fact that this is an impossible task in the first place, I wish you hadn't weaseled out of including the whole of Western notational music history. What a chance to advocate for composers outside the mainstream symphonic / chamber music canon, and introduce Times readers to composers new to them. Damn right you can make a case for including Josquin and Monteverdi in that list; also Hildegard of Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, and many others.

It is especially crazy to omit Monteverdi, who operates right on the edge between the Renaissance and the modern. He didn't invent opera, but he wrote operas that are in a class with Mozart's; he wrote great secular works and great sacred works.

I'm more in agreement about the omission of living composers, though even there I am troubled. Omit the living and you essentially write women composers completely out of the picture. There were more women active between 1750 and the late 20th c. than one might think, but they did not have much in the way of opportunities to become well known or widely played. Today, we are lucky enough to have many, many women working as composers, and there's at least one whom I'd consider to have a shot at the pantheon.

For me: I looked at the illustrations for the article and crazily assumed they were Tommasini's final picks, despite the fact that there are thirteen faces. So there's a comment by me on the ArtsBlog about dropping Tchaikowsky and including Bartok. Well, I'd stick with that one, for sure; I'd add that it's critical to include Debussy, probably by dumping consideration of Chopin. Debussy and Bartok rank with Schoenberg and Stravinsky in terms of their influence on composers in the 20th and early 21st centuries.  And I think one could safely lose Schumann, much as I love his music. I would like to see Verdi or Puccini included, in part because of all the German-language heavyweights in the thirteen, in part because they're that good. But it's nuts to omit Wagner, whose giant ambitions and harmonic language lead directly to the 20th century and serial composition.

43 comments:

john_burke100 said...

The marketing goal is clear from the invitation to readers to submit their own lists. The heart of a good con is that the mark actually demands that the con artist take his money.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is an excellent observation!

susie said...

In response to a later post than yours, Tommasini noted that an editor put in those pictures, not Tommasini.

The "invitation to readers to submit their own lists" is not clear. Tommasini asks for procedural feedback prior to some kind of list submission at a later date.

There has been some interesting listener-preference research going on, but only in hard-to-get-free-on-the-net academic journals. A pity more of this doesn't reach the general public. Instead, we rehash the old "my favorite-your favorite" game.

Jeff Dunn (using wife's acct)

A.C. Douglas said...

It is especially crazy to omit Monteverdi.... He didn't invent opera, but he wrote operas that are in a class with Mozart's....

Not on this planet.

What a chance to advocate for composers outside the mainstream symphonic / chamber music canon, and introduce Times readers to composers new to them.

This exercise, as silly as it is, is NOT to "advocate" for anything. It's to select the ten greatest composers in music history among which are no women at all in any informed musician's opinion, and most especially not Hildegard of Bingen.

--
ACD
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

John Marcher said...

Lisa, who's is the female composer you are thinking of?

Over at A Feast of Music (http://www.feastofmusic.com/feast_of_music/2011/01/my-top-10-.html) he or she has compiled a Top 20 including pop and jazz musicians, which I think is an interesting idea I can get behind (but that's me- I think Hendrix and Beethoven are pretty much musical peers). I know Bartok will be the one everyone clamors for, but I would put Janacek in his place, and yes, Wagner must be on such list for it not to be sneered at- even though it is a ridiculous exercise by definition.

ACD- you are a hoot.

John Marcher said...

And I should have looked closer- Feast of Music is written by Peter Matthews- I'll assume that's a guy.

A.C. Douglas said...

ACD- you are a hoot.

This from someone who believes "Hendrix and Beethoven are pretty much musical peers."

--
ACD
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

Lisa Hirsch said...

JM - Saariaho, but I won't be around to see her enter the canon. Much as I love Janacek, I give the nod to Bartok for the breadth of his career and depth of influence.

ACD, you've likely never had the chance to see excellent live productions of L'incoronazione di Poppea and Nozze in close proximity, or you'd know whereof I speak. San Francisco Opera, 1997-98.

John Marcher said...

ACD- yes, musical peers. If you don't get that it's your problem, not mine. Maybe you need to be "Experienced."

Lisa- that's who I thought you meant- and all the more reason for including the living in such an exercise.

calimac said...

He doesn't get it because it's totally nuts. You can't even measure them on the same scale. (Which is also why Tommasini left pre-Bach composers out of his consideration. I know that because he said so. They're too different; comparison would be arbitrary.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

JM - ACD has, ah, firm views on the classical canon versus the rest of the world. Good luck!

A friend of mine calls Saariaho the "greatest living composer under the age of 100," but I think she's got mighty competition from Boulez, and certainly one would at least have to think about Adams and a few others.

calimac, sorry - "He" refers to Tommasini?

john_burke100 said...

greatest living composer under the age of 100

Well played!

calimac said...

First "He" refers to ACD, in light of John Marcher's immediately previous comment.

Kevin said...

Nice catch Lisa: Tony--usually a champion for the unsung--did miss a golden opportunity. Too bad.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, well.

Thanks, calimac!

Joe Barron said...

The under 100 thing was well-played - and so gratifying!

Lists are a common way of attracting readers/listeners and generating controversy. They mean nothing, and they invariably tell us more about the person making the list than about the subject.

Still, I enjoy a good argument, and I have fallen into the trap myself - not of making lists, which I never to, but of reacting to them. When, at the turn of the millenium, NPR compiled a (mostly inane) list of the greatest 100 pieces of American music of the 20th century, I was livid that nothing by Charles Ives was included, that the Concord and the 4th Symph. got bumped in favor of Rock Around the Clock and Born to Run. And I wrote them a livid e-mail telling them, in livid terms, just how livid I was. Which is what they wanted from me, I guess. Score one for them.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And livid emails are such fun to write!

Joe Barron said...

I remember writing something like: "Born to Run 'greater' than the Concord Sonata? By what standard? I mean, Christ!" That sort of thing. They didn't read it on air. They couldn't have.

calimac said...

It's more danceable.

They've both got good riffs. Springsteen has his, and Ives has Beethoven's.

Joe Barron said...

Ouch. I need some witch hazel for all these barbs ...

John Marcher said...

Touche' to Calimac on that one. While I recognize it to be another fool's errand to try to convince this crowd of the equivalent value of pop and classical music, the impact and influence of Springsteen's oeuvre vs. Ives' results in an ineluctable conclusion: Springsteen is the greater of the two.

I shall now duck for cover.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Don't expect me to come after you! Besides, I'm otherwise occupied at the moment.

calimac said...

If I was too oblique, allow me to clarify that, though I don't actually like Springsteen very much (and Hendrix even less), I'd rather listen to a good rock song than much of Charles Ives (whom I don't like very much either).

And while I consider comparison of Beethoven and Hendrix to be nuts, I think the Beatles actually stand up very well by comparison to Schubert's songs, incredulous though some are at the very notion.

Joe Barron said...

Well, John, as Charles Rosen has said, by that standard, Michael Jackson is greater than Verdi: He affords more people greater aesthetic pleasure. (And you can see how long ago Rosen was writing.) If we're going down this road, we shouldn't be listening to classical music at all.

Joe Barron said...

And for the record, I think Springsteen is overrated. You know my position on Ives.

John Marcher said...

It looks like I have a post explaining why Beethoven and Hendrix are comparable on my "to write" list, though I would think anyone familiar with, or interested in, the history of musical influence could see the obvious connection between the two: both profoundly changed their repsective milieus and became standards for all who followed in their wake. One who is composing for an orchestra, piano, or string quartet, or something to be played on an electric guitar wrestles with the legacy of these two giants. Is there anyone else who readily comes to mind when the subject of influence and legacy are brought up in this regard? No- not to the extent these two have over their respective musical worlds.

Both worked within well-established musical traditions, formats and mediums and transformed them into
something recognizable and yet wholly new, changing everything which came after, and in many instances, rendering what came before obsolete- something the Beatles (nor any other pop figures) cannot lay claim to on a musical basis to the same extent.

How is that not obvious?

Whether or not one considers pop music to be comparable to Western art music is another question altogether. On that question I'll defer to Duke Ellington, who said "There are only two kinds of music. Good music... and the other kind."

A.C. Douglas said...

John Marcher wrote: It looks like I have a post explaining why Beethoven and Hendrix are comparable on my "to write" list, though I would think anyone familiar with, or interested in, the history of musical influence could see the obvious connection between the two..., etc.

Had you written something along the lines of, "In their respective domains, I think Hendrix and Beethoven are equally important and, in that sense, musical peers," instead of the blunt, patently absurd, "Hendrix and Beethoven are pretty much musical peers," no one, least of all myself, would have lodged any complaint or criticism.

Perhaps in future you'll develop the skill to write what you actually mean.

--
ACD
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm publishing the whole post, but in future, consider omitting that kind of attack.

A.C. Douglas said...

I'm publishing the whole post, but in future, consider omitting that kind of attack.

To whom is that addressed?

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

You, because of "Perhaps in future you'll develop the skill to write what you actually mean." In future, write that sort of things on your own blog, not in comments to mine.

A.C. Douglas said...

In future, write that sort of things on your own blog, not in comments to mine.

In future, I'll write what I please here. You have the option to publish or not. If you ever edit or not publish any comment I make here, that will be the last time I make any comment here on any post of yours.

See how that works?

ACD

John Marcher said...

ACD- I did indeed write what I mean and I think it reasonable to assume the readers of Lisa's blog bring to the table a level of musical knowledge eliminating the need to have every statement explained as if one were sitting in class on the first day of Music 101.

That the two operate in different domains is a priori.

Joe- saying Michael Jackson is greater than Verdi is not an apt analogy, nor does it make much sense. However, I think it justifiable to call them equals. It's a case of looking at their legacies objectively or subjectively. Objectively neither can be said to have changed anything within their respective domains except to raise expectations on what could be done within them, and both could arguably be seen as setting the standard on what defines quality relative to those domains.

But that's far different and less important than changing the fundamental nature of the domain itself- which I believe should be the criteria for compiling lists like the one we were initially discussing here.

One can justifiably hold the opinion that Verdi's works are as "great" as Wagner's based on certain objectives, but to argue that Verdi had a more profound impact on opera would be difficult to support, thus I would argue Wagner is the greater of the two regardless of whether or not I personally like Verdi's operas more.

Thus, looking at Hendrix and Beethoven from this perspective (which I would have thought unnecessary to defend here),I again claim, without reservation, them to be musical peers.

Joe Barron said...

>>"There are only two kinds of music. Good music... and the other kind."

I agree with this, but if we're going to accept it, then we must also admit that questions of "impact and influence," as a key to greatness, become irrelvant, and the list loses a few more criteria. See? It gets complicated.

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elaine Fine said...

Only a few top ten lists makes sense at all. Perhaps they can be divided into a few categories. Here's my top ten list of musical top ten lists (of the top of my head).

1. One that is funny and has nothing to do with anything meaningful (David Letterman-style)

2. One that has its participants limited to ten. Even with that kind of restriction, we would have serious arguments about which number is most important. I know that one is the loneliest.

3. One where you really have to dig to get all ten slots filled, like the top ten ways you can slice a sandwich.

4. One that involves a control and a narrow span of time, like the top ten opera composers born before 1685.

5. One that lists the top ten arguments for Wagner being included on a list of top ten composers and not Verdi.

6. One that lists the top ten arguments for Verdi being included on a list of top ten composers and not Verdi.

7. The top ten reasons that Hildegard is considered an important composer.

8. The top ten songs from the Carmina Burana.

9. The top ten most prolific and least important composers of all time.

10. The top ten reasons for Tommasini to have written his article in the first place.

Lisa Hirsch said...

NICE. And I note that Elaine cross-posted an annotated version of her ten to her own blog.

David and Won Jung said...

ahhh Brahms must be on all lists, current and future.

Ignore ACD, he is...well we all know.

I can conceive of the comparison of Beethoven and Hendrix, However Beethoven was a prolific composer, more detailed, more structured. Hendrix at times is an incredible music maker. It will be interesting to see (from heaven, hell, limbo, nirvanna, what have you) if he gets played 200 hundred years later.

http://www.virtuosonews.com

Lisa Hirsch said...

The question with the Beethoven/Hendrix comparison might be how to compare a notational with an improvisatory composer - this might be one of the issues calimac was thinking of in terms of comparing two composers who had different aims and different techniques at their disposal.

John, re-reading your reply to ACD, I found this:

Objectively neither [Verdi nor Michael Jackson] can be said to have changed anything within their respective domains except to raise expectations on what could be done within them, and both could arguably be seen as setting the standard on what defines quality relative to those domains.

Verdi changed a lot about Italian opera: he strove for a through-composed style, trying to escape the bonds of aria & cabaletta; he introduced various opera-house reforms as well. He seriously pushed the boundaries of what could be done within the style, and that did change things.

John Marcher said...

Good points, Lisa. Re notational vs. improv, I'm not sure that could be qualified to anyone's satisfaction.

I also agree with your points on Verdi, but would add similar points could also be made about Jackson and pop music. More to the point, Verdi's style matured consistently, but I would argue it's not until Otello that he breaks from the mold of Italian opera completely- and picks up Wagner's instead.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I don't think he ever truly follows the Wagnerian model - where are the leitmotivs, for example? - but Aida is largely through-composed.

Veit said...

John Marcher,

Are you simply being facetious?

Why do you feel that Beethoven and Hendrix are musical peers?

Do you really believe that Hendrix has created anything that is on a par with such a profound and beautiful masterpiece like the 'Missa Solemnis'?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Veit - he's not being facitious. Did you miss his partial explanation above? It starts with "It looks like I have a post explaining why Beethoven and Hendrix are comparable on my "to write" list".

John Marcher said...

The comment thread that will never die! Lisa, I think the use of leitmotiv(s) can certainly be found in Otello.

Veit, I am certainly not being facetious. No, I do not think Hendrix created anything as moving or profound as the Missa Solemnis, the 9th Symphony or late the string quartets. That's not the point. For that matter, I don't think anyone else has either, though Wagner came pretty damn close with the Ring and Tristan and Isolde. However, Hendrix, like Schubert and Chopin, died at a very young age.

I've long thought there are "Mozart people" and "Beethoven people." The former appreciate beauty above all else, the latter place a greater emphasis on emotion. I'm a Beethoven person.

The reason (in short, because I do plan to write that post one day soon) I consider Beethoven and Hendrix peers, besides what I've mentioned in previous comments, is because of what each of them expresses to the listener. Unlike the majority of classical music fans, I didn't grow up listening to classical music and I am not a musician. I used to be a DJ and my area of expertise (such as it is) is rock and hip hop of certain eras. It amuses me that people in my social circle think I have such a vast knowledge of Western Art Music when it really just arises from following my own musical sensibilities.

I didn't really get "classical music" until one afternoon when I was sitting alone in my apartment listening to Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto. Loudly, I should add. When the piano enters in the first movement, I was floored and thought to myself "dear God, that is so rock and roll."

There are very, very few musicians who can evoke such responses in a listener to the point where they are literally taken aback by what they are hearing. This is an elite set, which because of my own musical background, I refuse to put into silos. Thus they are peers, because while it is true that nothing Hendrix came up with in his brief lifetime can equal the previously mentioned works of LVB, the visceral feeling the listener feels upon first experiencing "Voodoo Chile," "Machine Gun" and "The Star Spangled Banner" just to name a few, not only taps into something elemental in the brain, but it creates a thirst for more. These sounds, these compositions, upon hearing them the first time, is like reading the overture in Swann's Way for the first time and realizing someone has just described the indescribable. Who is capable of that? Beethoven to be sure. Hendrix? I say "yes." The others? I'm going to hedge my bets here and just say that Wagner, Puccini, Janacek, Billie Holliday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, James Brown and Nirvana all belong on that same list. The key factor? You never hear things the same way after you have heard these artists.

It's an interesting parlor game to imagine where Hendrix would have gone had he lived longer. I posit there is no one in contemporary music (of any genre) who's impact would have been more profound. There you have it, for now.