Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tommasini Ten

What? Two classical music posts in a row? Since when did the Parrot get such an urbane bug in his tropical ear? Well - when a leading NY Times music critic like Anthony Tommasini indulges himself and his readers in an exercise like "name the ten greatest composers who ever lived" the Skeptical Parrot cannot resist the challenge.

First, I imagine a scenario like the following: The Times editor sits everybody down in a big conference room and says: "Okay, now, you all know that newspaper readership is declining, and our future (and yours) depends largely on the success of the web site. So everybody's got to do his or her part to build our web presence. I need all writers to have at least one proposal for how you can contribute to this on my desk by tomorrow morning." Not having a heck of a lot of time to brainstorm, the music critics come of with various "best of"-type ideas. And though the notion of a "ten best" classical composers is as nutty as a Gesualdo slumber party, it seems likely to get enough people anxious that their personal favorites will be passed over that lots of people will appear to be interested. And when Tommasini duly reports the "more than 1500 informed, challenging, passionate and inspiring comments from readers of The New York Times" the only rational response from said editor would be "way to go, Tony!"

But while Tommasini and his readers may have had their fun, the entire exercise lacked one thing from the start: criteria. Rather than offer X, Y and Z as the criteria of greatness, and then engage in a fact-finding study as to who best fulfills them, the crtieria got hauled out here in half-baked form, hidden under the tones and rants of subjective impressions and assessments of individual accomplishments. Only by such constant tipping of the scales one way or another did Tomassini end up with a list in which, for example, Bartok is included but not Handel, Haydn, Grieg, Mahler, Tchaikovsky or Schoenberg; Verdi is in, but Vivaldi, Schumann, Dvorak, Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt and Elgar don't make the cut. Tomassini does not so much as apologize, in his final essay, for the fact that he couldn't squeeze Mendelssohn into his list; after all, he is only the composer of the world's most popular violin concerto, two of the most popular symphonies, some of the greatest works of chamber music, the Elijah oratorio, the Hebrides Overture and Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (including what is perhaps the world's most frequently performed piece of classical music, the Wedding March) and the Songs Without Words for piano; and, since Tommasini likes to refer to extra-musical facts about his choices, he is also largely responsible for our current appreciation of Tommasini's #1 composer, J.S. Bach. Not enough, apparently, to place him above the illustrious Bartok, whose influence on anyone or anything is debatable and whose quality is as uneven as that of many other 20th c. options.

What sort of nonsense is denoted by "top ten classical music composers in history"? I can't even begin to imagine. There is a sort of grudging consensus among classically trained musicians that from the Baroque on, J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart and L. van Beethoven are the three greatest composers. Beyond that, there is a slightly less firm consensus that Handel, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms make the cut. You get Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler in the late romantic contingent. And in the "be fair to the 20th" category it goes without saying that Debussy (whose most importat works were writtne after 1900), Stravinsky and Schoenberg had the biggest impact (though "greatness" at this point already depends more on "admirable" than "lovable"). So there are your "top sixteen classical music composers in history" and I did virtually no work to arrive at it. You want to cut, then you cut the late romantics and Schoenberg because they are more controversial than the others (or in Chopin's case, more limited in range of composition). Now you've got eleven, a nice prime number. And if anyone wants to challenge this, I'm just going to say: "Look, I have my personal favorites too. For example, Purcell, Teleman, Bruckner and Elgar definitely make my pantheon. But I am not talking about personal favorites, I'm talking about consensus. And that, I can virtually guarantee after almost half a century of appreciation, study, training and performance of classical music, is what I just said it is. So there you go."

Someone will no doubt be inclined to respond like this: "Yeah, but even if you're right, the consensus is wrong, because so-and-so is really greater than so-and-so". In that case I'm going to ask for your criteria for greatness; and you may find that once you state it, and apply it consistently, people who you don't want to be on your list will be, and others who you want will be excluded. And that is no doubt what would have happened with Tomassini's list if he hadn't been backing up his choices with an ever-changing arsenal of justifications for the people he included. Each choice is secured on somewhat different grounds. By such methods, anyone with a reasonable knowledge of classical music can produce and back up a list of his own and write off Tomassini's arguments. What is the value of that exercise?

The fact that Tommasini came up with so many of the consensus guys I just mentioned shows perhaps that they are the ones who get on the list by any reasonable standard. But Tomassini goes even further than identifying the 10 "greatest" composers; he actually goes so far as to rank them in order! Here's his list: (1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok. The reasons for these rankings probably belong in a joke book: Wagner, for example, was an anti-semite and therefore ranks behind Verdi as a composer! Sqwuakkk! Beethoven beats Mozart because Tomassini thinks he is more daring, or something like that. Brahms slides down, apparently, because he tried to walk the line between conservatism and the progressive pull of the Romantic. (One might just as well say this is why he should slide up, but why argue with such wily logic?) It's all very silly, but hey, it sure pulls readers into that web site. They all want to have their say. And so do I. Oh sorry, I didn't play by the rules and posted this on my own site. Well, you're free to use the permalink at the top.

So here are a few of my non-"Comments".

First, Bela Bartok is not even on my list of top ten post-Romantic pre-War 20th century composers. Of course the caveats are necessary to exclude not only Mahler, Elgar, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius but also Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage and other great figures of the second half of the 20th century from consideration for this very exclusive list. This seems fair since the late Romantics would win hands down and the post-War period is still being evaluated. The list would then go as follows (in no particular order): Schoenberg, Ives, Stravinsky, Webern, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Copland, Barber, Vaughan Williams. Is Bartok next? Maybe; for Bluebeard's Castle, Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta, the 2nd Violin Concerto, and some of the quartets (though the middle ones get him negative points). The problem is that few of those pieces really send me as much as the best ones by the other guys. But he tried harder, I have to admit that. Another BB, Tommasini's favorite Benjamin Britten, never impressed me much. Good thing I'm not a Big Berg fan or BB1 would slide below AB, who's definitely in front of BB2. According to BP (the Brooklyn Parrot).

Next, by what logic, exactly, is all the classical music prior to Bach somehow dismissed from this exercise? Or does "history" begin in the late 17th century? Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin des Prez and Palestrina were each, in their day, considered among the greatest composers of all time; and history, I think more or less backs up this judgment. Shame on Tomassini for ageism. Byrd, Dufay, DiLassus, Gabrieli and a few others may also deserve consideration.

If consistency is a criterion of greatness, as I think it should be, there are only, to my knowledge, two composers whose mature work contains no second-rate pieces: Bach and Brahms. Beethoven's execrable Wellington's Victory and one or two other late pieces bar him from this list. Mozart's juvenilia can be discounted by virtue of the "mature" clause; but his ridiculous parlor music output of divertimenti and serenades, with one or two well-known exceptions, take him off the table. I will admit that I can't actually name a Schubert piece I dislike, but of his many quartets and piano sonatas, I think they do not all rise to the level of the greatest classical music. Chopin is probably beyond criticism, but as I said, the fact that his output is all but limited to solo piano music and a couple of concerti means he should not be compared with composers who tried and consistently succeeded at a variety of musical forms. Handel is a serious possibility; though with over 200 vocal works, of which I am terribly familiar with exactly one, it is hard to pretend that I really know much about Handel's consistency. (It is interesting to note that though he does not make Tommasini's list, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are all on record as considering him their master. Go figure.)  And that's about it for composers who even might be perfectly consistent at a very high level.

I now return to my own "favorites" list. First, let me say this: Telemann wrote more works than any other composer; he wrote over 2000 cantatas alone, which amounts to a cantata a week, every week, for 40 years, in addition to at least 1000 other pieces. Neither I nor, I think, any other living person has heard even a majority of Telemann's music. I have, however, heard quite a bit of it, and I think it is fair to say I have not only never heard a bad work, but never heard a work that is less than fully satisfying, original, and stocked with passages of great beauty. I think it is at least possible that by some criteria, such as quantity of high-quality output, Telemann deserves to be called one of the greatest composers of all time. Next, though his output is much more limited in quantity, I find Henry Purcell's music to be of such unearthly beauty that I could listen to nothing else for weeks. He has a permanent piece of real estate in my Composers' Heaven. Staying with the English for a minute (who grossly overvalue their dry, unadventurous types like Britten and Frank Bridge and undervalue more interesting figures like William Walton and Michael Tippett) I find Edward Elgar's music to be the equal of any composer from the 19th century on. Of his many underrated pieces, the String Quartet and Violin Concerto stand out to me. Again, I have never heard a less than completely satisfying piece by Elgar. He's in my Top Whatever list, by almost any criteria. 

Moving right along, while I recognize that Anton Bruckner had his less than stellar moments - the 2nd and 6th symphonies primarily - I find several of his symphonies so deeply moving that upon the 100th hearing they still reduce me to tears. These would include the First, Third, Fourth, Seventh and Ninth at least; while the Fifth and Eighth are almost at that level, and even the Sixth, surely an imperfect work, contains many passages of beauty. My admiration for him is so high that even his "student" symphony, "#0" so-called, I find as satisfying as many composers' mature works. He is among my top 5 symphonists, for sure. Next, anyone who underrates Ives is a fool; the Concord Sonata alone is enough to label him a musical genius, and when you add his greatest orchestral works, his string quartets and violin sonatas, and some of his best songs and piano works, Ives has a secure a place in the Top Whatever as anyone. 

I am also going to put in another plug here for Paul Hindemith. Ever since my high school orchestra took up his small, hauntingly gorgeous piece called Trauermusik I have loved almost everything I've heard by Hindemith. His Symphonic Metamorphoses is the greatest orchestral theme and variations I known; his Violin Concerto is extremely underplayed and should be hauled out regularly; his more well-known works like the several Kammermusik pieces and the Mathis der Maler symphony are also brilliant. (I will admit that his setting of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is a bit challenging, but I think it will eventually reward repeated listenings.) That said, other than Stravinsky, Prokofiev is surely the greatest tonal modernist of the 20th century; how there can even be a doubt about it is beyond me. I love much of Shostakovich's work, but he is surely not very consistent and tends to get in a rut. Prokofiev towers over Bartok, IMHO; I would say that even his film scores are superior to almost anything Bartok ever wrote, to say nothing of his magnificent symphonies, ballets, concerti, violin sonatas, piano works, etc. Head and shoulders over Bartok, and most other 20th century tonal composers.

The French don't get much respect in classical music; between Dufay and Debussy they are practically ignored. But I think Ravel is almost as great as Debussy. His influence on modern music is, in my opinion, vast and little appreciated (except by film composers!) and his output of great works is considerable. I happen to be a Faure fan; he is perhaps too subtle to get a lot of accolades, but pieces like the Requiem and Piano Quartet are some of my favorites. And I wonder at the fact that Saint Saens does not get much attention; though he was very uneven, and could be borderline kitschy, his output as a whole includes a remarkable amount of memorable music.  Lastly, Sibelius seems not to be getting his due in the discussion. I don't have to go through the list of his enormously popular and beautiful works, but I would say at least that the 2nd Symphony is one of the most profound pieces of instrumental music ever written.

Okay, I'm done. What does all this prove? There is no such thing as the "10 greatest classical composers in history". There are two or three dozen composers who have made classical music what it is, and without whom it would be a musical genre of very modest interest. There is really no whittling it down to "10 greatest"; the best classical composers are great for many different reasons, and which reasons trump other reasons will always be a very subjective affair. My top-16-by-consensus is about as good as you can get; and the fact that the favorites I just listed are not among them only further demonstrates that when you change your criteria to accommodate the people you like, the list is limited only by the broad class of composers who have written several great classical works. So let that be the epitaph for top-10 lists in classical music. At least until I need to attract more people to this web site.

[Note: Updated 14 January 2013 - corrected a misstated lead sentence in Par.10, plus some minor typos and stylistic issues.]

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