"Great" Music and "Top Ten" Lists


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Top-Ten Greatness Countdown

The NY Times critic Anthony Tommasini has asked his reading public to respond to what he characterizes as a "playful" approach to the age-old question, "What makes music great?"

Tommasini has cut some videos and performed short lectures on traits of composers that could be proposed as great and in the interior of a paragraph asks readers, "Please challenge my analysis. Propose your own approaches."

Rather than wait for Tommasini to complete his analyses or even view one of them, hundreds of readers have flooded the arts beat blog with their own Top Ten lists. I read 658 of them and found that few discussed the approaches Tommasini was asking for. There were mostly lists and the occasional, predictable disputes about the importance of controversial composers like Wagner and Schoenberg.

So, without duplicating any of the previous postings, I submitted the following to his blog. And of course, not resisting the temptation, I had to conclude with a Top Ten list of my own.


We are asked not so much for a top 10 list, but proposed processes for going about creating one or more such lists.

First and foremost, music is a human endeavor; therefore those involved in the art should be the focus of such a list–ALL those involved. Not only will lists vary between individuals, but they should also vary between categories of individuals. Here are four categories of individuals, each of which may respond, from the perspective of their position in the flow of musical communication, with different lists. Such categories should be separated out in the field of "classical music":
1. Individuals who primarily compose music.
2. Individuals who primarily perform music.
3. Individuals who primarily listen to music.
4. Individuals who primarily teach music and/or write about same.
Those in the first category are more likely to appreciate greatness in the "nuts and bolts" of composition. Performers (those who still love their work, that is) will list composers who challenge them technically, help them grow as musicians, and understand the psychophysical pleasures of their instruments. Teachers/professors will tend to emphasize historical importance and innovation over other criteria perhaps.
Finally, there are is the largest group, the primary listeners. This group should be further subdivided by experience. The top ten list of a person who has 1-3 years of classical music exposure will differ considerably from that person who has heard a wide range of composers over decades. Some popular composers, e.g., Tchaikovsky, may pale for some after hearing dozens of renditions of the same music.
I'm not saying that a composer like John Williams or Carl Orff who can provide a thrill to the listener right away but who may become tiresome is not necessarily a great composer, just that we should distinguish, via the listener category, the quick-thrill greatness from the long-haul greatness.
To conclude, since music is not notes, but an expression of the human spirit, greatness should be defined as contributing most to what it means to be human–among the four categories of responders above.
The NY Times, I hope, will set up a proper survey* that will make such and other distinctions. There are objective ways to go about understanding subjective responses, such as distinguishing among genres–after distinguishing respondent category. For example, among genres, the field of orchestral concert-hall music can be measured by the American Symphony Orchestra League reports.
(It's interesting to note, by the way, that in the last six years, despite the overwhelming mention of Bach among commenters, Bach has not ranked among the top ten composers in terms of number of performances. Only the following seven composers have been in the top ten every year: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, and Ravel. I would conclude that Bach, despite his immense importance, is frankly not that popular in the concert hall compared to others. Note I say "popular" rather than "great.")
For what it's worth, in terms of the composers who have taught me the most of what it is to be human over 56 years, the following rank in my top ten right now (and although Tommasini proposed excluding the genre, we simply MUST include opera among the eligibles for this criterion of greatness):
Wagner, for insight into the intoxication of love and lust for power
Puccini, for the truths of infatuation and the difficulties of disentanglement.
Elgar, for the agony of unfulfilled longing and imprisonment of class prejudice
Britten, for the ironies and tragedies of war and social restriction
Bartok, for conveying the tragedy of misunderstanding that faces every great artist
R. Strauss, for the sublime portrayal of burgeois sensibilities
Geirr Tveitt, for showing how all of humanity can be found in a single fjord
Shostakovich, for monumentalizing the angst of despotism
Handel and Bach, for humbling me in the face of the laws of the universe
* A proper survey would utilize surveymonkey.com or like site and collect information on responders that could be used for factor analysis, like the 4 categories I mention, musical experience, number of times one has heard mentioned composers. You could have a question like “Which of the following composers have you heard played more than 100 times,” then list the top 75 composers. An “experienced” listener would have heard 95% of the composers listed, and at least 50% of them more than 100 times. You could break experience down based on how the responses cluster, then see if the composition of the submitted lists varies by cluster. I’d also collect responses on how greatness should be defined, then follow up with another poll voting for various common definitions.