Monday, January 10, 2011

Greatest Composers: Get in on the argument

Some candidates above, from left, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart, Schoenberg, Haydn, and Stravinsky; below, from left, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Handel, Bach, and Debussy. 

These 13 men from Tommasini's list of greatest composers include two Russians, one Pole, one Frenchman and nine Germans.  Not one Italian name appears.  What does this list tell us about standards for musical greatness?  It tells us that these standards originate from German sources.

It tells us that greatness derives from development of forms in the repertoire for keyboard and orchestra.  Or else why not the sainted Wagner?

I guess I already established my opinions in Opera as Drama.  There is something intensely satisfying about form and analysis, so satisfying that one is inclined to be drawn into the belief that it is the be all and end all of Classical Music.

What if we proposed Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini for our list?  We would be laughed from the room.


Alexander Johannesen said...

I hate lists like this because, frankly, how do you measure the birth of the lament (Monteverdi) against the best fuge (Bach) anyway? (I could leap into seccondo prattica and the 1610 Vespers as something I find far more virtuoso than any of Bach's most praised works, for example, just because of context, context, context) What about the tonality introduced by Schutz? What about the bombast of Biber (or his sublime violin techniques with the Rosenkrantz sonatas)? How can we even begin to appreciate what Bencini did for the Vespers, or friggin' Vivaldi's gentle virtuosity and how music turned? Or even what good ol' Lully did for French opera?

There's more problems of cultural bias, constraints on style, and the obvious personal taste clinging to a dated notion of what "classical" means. But the biggest problem is stated in the article: "Finally, I am focusing on the eras since the late Baroque", which cuts out most of the composers I love.

"It tells us that greatness derives from development of forms in the repertoire for keyboard and orchestra."

Most of the true basics and true genius of keyboard music happened way before Bach perfected it, but that's overlooked as well. It's the classical trap of defining "classical music" as something that is itself very heavily disputed. None of the composer candidates are mostly noted for their vocal works, for example (with the slight exception of Handel of which the general populace only knows his one vocal work that is played to death every Christmas, which isn't even a Christmas work), so the whole artform of opera is simply vanished (amazing considering Tommasini's clear love of it) but maybe people forget easily that opera's need to be composed as well, even if it is "just singing"?

I hate the term "classical music" for all these reasons, and more. Music history is all forgotten but for the rock-stars of it. Harumph.

Dr.B said...

Biber. I LOVE Biber. I regret having left out Vivaldi. Maybe I'll stick him in now.

I have always loved the middle Baroque, but you have left out Purcell.

Alexander Johannesen said...


Oh, I can chuck in Palestrina, and Despres, and friggin' Telemann, and Bizet, and ... and ... well, on and on, all composers who did something for music that changed it, hopefully for the better. I, too, was very surprised to not see Wagner in there, and shouldn't Glass get a mention, or Dvorak, or Grieg, or Zelenka, or either Scarlatti, or (my secret love) Frescobaldi, or Pergolesi? And the importance of Corelli should definitly not be missed. All did something important along the way, some of them even on par with the best.

Sorry for leaving out Purcell, though, the only Brit worth mentioning. :)