Ranking Composers

Anthony Tomassini of The New York Times, a critic whom I usually respect, has undertaken a project that  I despise.  He has started ranking composers of classical music.  (As an aside, is there a better term than “classical”, which is a very specific and narrowly tailored term.)  To his credit, Tomassini acknowledges the flaws of making this kind of list, and he limits his scope to a very famous but narrow tradition.  Nevertheless, this is list is folly.

Music is inherently subjective, and while there are certainly better composers than others, once a composer attains a certain level, comparison is only a matter of taste.  Can we fairly compare a Baroque era composer, who composed in a deliberately ornate style, with a Classical composer, who strove for simplicity of line and aural beauty?  Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg revolutionized music, but are they “better” than Mozart or Bach who may not have been revolutionaries, but who are widely regarded as among the greatest of all time.  Tomassini adds in his own biases when he discusses Handel’s place in the pantheon when he makes an off-handed remark about de capo arias.  My own feelings are that Richard Wagner’s music should be permanent banned from existence, not (just) because of the composer’s horrible anti-Semitism, but because it is entirely too tedious and turgid.  Nevertheless, neither my feelings nor Tomassini’s will matter.

Tomassini would probably say I am misreading his intention, especially since he steadfastly refused to rank his top ten list (and then went on to heavy-handedly imply that Bach was the greatest of all time.)  Nevertheless, I do not think I am misreading him.  The composers that he will be ranking have already been judged twice–first by their peers and successors and then by posterity–and thus became a part of the permanent repertoire.  Ultimately, this is an exercise in vanity: “My tastes are dispositive.”

I get fed up by subjective gimmicks like this.  For years now, this list has been the bane of my existence.  When it first came out, I felt very intimidated because I had read less than half of the books on the list.  I have now read over half of them, but my own feelings of inadequacy had blinded me to that list’s flaws, such as: (1) they’re not all books, which is a far more serious flaw than seems at first (plays should be watched, poetry-especially epic poetry-can be heard or recited, and a short story collection is just plain cheating); and (2) the writers who created the list had a lot of self-interest at stake (which is why you see books by Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Astrid Lindgren on the list, and also why the focus extends well beyond the Dead White European Male club.)

The truth is–and here is where the subjectivity argument comes into play–a lot of these books are really, really boring.  At least they are for me.  You cannot make me read any more Faulkner, Melville is a terrible prose stylist, and Dickens never says in 10 words what he can say in 200.  And don’t get me started about Toni Morrison.

Tomassini would say that this is all in fun and not meant to be taken seriously.  That is his right, but I would answer that it disrespects composers by giving the veneer of objectivity to the subjective, and creates insidious classifications of good and bad.

 

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