Your Music vs My Music: This Time, It's Personal!

My "As We See It" in the July 2011 issue seems to have touched a nerve. At the AXPONA NYC audio show last June, more than one person stopped me in a corridor to take issue with what they thought I'd written.

That column certainly brought the Beethoven worshippers out of the woodwork. Look, I revere Beethoven, and I stand by what I wrote in the July issue: There can be little doubt, in terms of his impact on the course that Western music would follow, that Beethoven was the most important composer. But "most important" in terms of music history is not the same thing as the composer whose works most deeply touch my heart. For that, Beethoven is just not in my Top Five.

At the risk of making buttonholings at future audio shows less cordial, I have to admit that I find Beethoven's work of uneven quality and attractiveness. Furthermore, even the better stuff can be repetitive, excessively rhetorical, or argumentatively dialectical. In my opinion. Honestly —the "Spring" and "Kreutzer" sonatas aside, if someone named Rolf Schmitt had written Beethoven's violin sonatas, who would listen to most of them today?

In each genre, many of Beethoven's earlier works appear to me to be compositional exercises. Yes, Beethoven had an unprecedented and perhaps never-equaled mastery of musical form and development. But is the ability to spin the most music out of the smallest fragment of a theme really the most important measure of musical greatness? Is Beethoven's Piano Trio 11 in G, Op.121a, Variations on "Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu," really a "greater" piece of music than Toru Takemitsu's luminous, floating From Me Flows What You Call Time? Not to me.

A poster on the magazine's on-line Forum wrote: "There is a difference between likes and greatness, but surely some artists are objectively better than others, much like some baseball players are better than others." I reply here: It is possible to rank major-league baseball players in an objective manner. It is not possible to rank major composers in an objective manner. The reason for the difference is simple. Major-league baseball has a rulebook.

The rules of major-league baseball are objective. A particular baseball bat is objectively legal and permitted under the rules, or not —regardless of one's desire for a cork-loaded bat. A baseball team can have nine players out on the field, and no more —regardless whether one team is slighter of stature than the other.

The art of music does not have a rulebook. Or rather, there can be many incompatible rulebooks. Unlike baseball's nonnegotiable rules, the rules of musical composition, by their very nature, must be flexible. Carl Ruggles might have thought he was being "radical" —at least within the academic confines of 12-tone serial composition —by not waiting until all 12 tones had been used before he repeated one. Which is a notion that Beethoven, of the Fifth Symphony's da-da-da-daaah fame, probably would have found both comical and pitiable.

I hope two silly examples will suffice. Imagine that a major-league baseball player comes to the plate with not a regulation baseball bat, but a grenade launcher modified to launch a baseball. He takes aim far above the second baseman's head, squeezes the trigger, watches as the baseball flies far over the wall and into the stands, and saunters around the bases. When the umpire ejects him from the game, and when his "home run" does not enter the record books, he has no valid complaint. He broke Rule 6.06(d).

Let's then imagine that a contemporary composer wishes to parody Richard Strauss's Symphonia domestica. He includes in his new symphony's orchestration a very highly amplified solo part for Fisher-Price's Corn Popper push toy. The audience at the premi ère may react negatively. Other orchestras may decline to program the piece. But unlike the use of a grenade launcher to play baseball, scoring a work for Fisher-Price Corn Popper breaks no "rules." That composer can still call his new piece a "symphony."

This is not to say that music has no rules. If you write a "Classical" symphony —as did Prokofiev, more than a century after the Classical period had ended —but it contains no recognizably Classical elements, you have failed. If you write a Chaconne that is through-composed and not made up of a sequence of variations, you have failed. But once you get over such rather low thresholds, objectivity is hardly relevant. Or even possible.

It is especially important to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that, if you "objectively" poll like-minded people, the fact that all the sheep on one side of the hill are facing the same way as they graze means anything at all. It doesn't.

And let's not be snobs. Any opinion poll, no matter how "scientifically" conducted, is ultimately founded on total subjectivity, regardless whether you poll concertgoers, music critics, faculty members, or orchestra conductors. At a time when Gustav Mahler had to scheme and cajole to get his own symphonies performed, Karl Goldmark was one of the most popular composers, living or dead. In the Chicago Symphony's first 25 years of existence, works by Goldmark were heard in 22 of those 25 seasons. In an audience-request poll in 1900, Goldmark's Sakuntala overture received more votes that Beethoven's Symphony 7 or Schubert's Symphony 8 ("Unfinished").

Mahler himself conducted Goldmark's opera Die K önigen von Saba (The Queen of Sheba). Yet today Goldmark's music is a rarely heard curiosity, while "Mahler is the new Beethoven." Remember, too, that when Goldmark was at the very height of his popularity, the initial critical reaction to Debussy's La Mer was that it was "mere trickery," "incomprehensible and without grandeur," "sour and disagreeable." But most of today's eminent critics rank La Mer as one of the greatest orchestral works of the 20th century.

If you personally and subjectively choose to define "greatness as a composer" only by those attributes that Beethoven possessed in greater measure than anyone else, you may fool yourself into thinking that Beethoven is objectively The Greatest Composer. He isn't. Ludwig is just The Greatest Beethoven, in the same way that J.S. is The Greatest Bach, and Toru is The Greatest Takemitsu.

And thank God for them all.

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drjjpdc's picture
Still some disagreement


I am still trying to come to terms with the central idea of the original article. Are you saying that all Chaconnes written within the "rules" by all Baroque composers are equal? How does the thrust of your article make J.S the greatest Bach, when there were many others (just including his kids) and aren't you saying there is no way to decide who is better between them?

As you say we have to be more restrictive in our classifications. For example are we talking about Composers or composing, Writers or writing, etc.? There are many parts (qualities) to composing a piece of music just as there are many parts to writing a book. I may be setting myself up again, but as great as I think LVB is, he was not a great melodist. I would give Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Gershwin props in that department.

How about numbers of masterpieces? Leoncavallo and Mascagni are basically known for a single work, while Puccini has at least a half dozen or more. Is there nothing to say about Puccini's body of work as opposed to Leoncavallo or Mascagni?

"But is the ability to spin the most music out of the smallest fragment of a theme really the most important measure of musical greatness?" Maybe not musical greatness, but what is the point of attraction of Paganini's 24th Caprice to composers? Surely it's not just the notes. I can't believe that Rachmaninoff wrote his composition without thinking that he could bring something different or dare I say better than the other composers who used it? How about the Diabelli Variations? Don't you think LVB was making a statement that he was much better than all the others that submitted but one variation?  

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