Critic Anthony Tommasini publishes his list of the ten greatest classical composers of all time in today's edition of the New York Times. My friend and fellow blogger Lisa Hirsch has called this a fool's errand, and I'm afraid I must agree, although, as the long list of comments following the article shows, the process does serve a purpose in generating intelligent discussion.
My own comment is No. 338. I repost it here (slightly edited) in case you overlooked it:
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 Mr. Tommasini says - 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 is precisely such subjective reactions I find more interesting than discussions of range or influence or historical importance.
My favorite dead composers include Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, who have taken me places no one else ever has, but I can see why a NYT critic would not include them in a list of "the greatest." On the other hand, I dislike Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and I doubt any list or any amount of argument is going to convert me, however much the may deserve a seat at the table.
Maybe ten slots just isn't enough. A hundred probably wouldn't be, either.
Another commenter — one after my own heart — noted that Elliott Carter wasn't included. He wasn't even included in the list of composers the Times allowed readers to vote for as their favorites, whereas Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were, and they are much lesser figures, in my humble estimation. But Mr. Tommasini's express criteria include mortality. In his view, one must be dead to be placed among the immortals. So Mr. Carter, at 102, is being penalized for his robust good health.
May he never be included in any list, ever, if it means he goes on living.
Lovely closing sentiment, there!
Personally, I'm one of those who was startled not to see Janáček's name floating around. But on the other hand, trying to nail down ten names (as Lisa suggested) is almost doomed from the beginning.
I think the top three - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven - are obvious and universally agreed upon, though the precise order may vary. The real disagreements start with position No. 4.
"Subjectivity must be served, and it is precisely such subjective reactions I find more interesting than discussions of range or influence or historical importance..."
I couldn't agree with you more!
I am only interested in music's personality. I have zero interest in what was perceived or is perceived as 'futuristic' or modern.
The preoccupation many people have over how radical a piece sounds gets very tiring.
On the topic of subjectivity in list-making, a couple of years ago I compared three lists of the 100 greatest novels of all time and was interested to discover that only 21 made it onto all three lists. It's the statistics that are interesting: only 1 in 5 made it through. This suggests that you need lots of people making very long lists to get anything like a consensus about these things.
Oops, it was four lists that I compared, not three. So much for me as a reliable reporter of statistics, eh?
>>I have zero interest in what was perceived or is perceived as 'futuristic' or modern.
Arguments about whether art is progressive or conservative seem less important over time. That said, I hate conservative art.
Eric, your point would seem to confirm what I said earlier - that everyone agrees on the greatest, but once the first few names are named, the consensus breaks up. There's Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. After that, it's up for grabs. And you're stuck with what you love.
"There's Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. After that, it's up for grabs"
Yes ok, but I simply can't live without Wagner. Can we make it a quadumvirate?
Heck, if he had written nothing but the final 30 minutes of 'Das Rheingold' he'd still be one of the immortals.
What stirring and beautiful music!
I'd feel better about Wagner if the last thirty minutes of Rheingold was all he had written.
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