[A rare moment this – an actual request from a reader. (Pete H.) And when I say ‘rare’, I mean unprecedented, unless you count “Shut down operations immediately and never darken the internerd again” as a request.
Anyway, some time back – the early part of 2011, give or take – a New York Times article on classical music got me to thinkin’, and this was the result. Now presented once again in living monochrome, and, if nothing else, at an affordable and appropriate price.]
PREHISTORIC TOP TEN ACTION
A music critic named Anthony Tommassini wrote a pleasantly informal and engagingly fanboyish article on his all-time top ten classical composers, published in the New York Times.
I don’t have the command of music theory (i.e. ANY) nor the knowledge of musical history to realistically debate his choices on any level, not that that’s going to stop me, of course. *
What I do have is, literally, a little knowledge (presumably of the type that is often cited as being “a dangerous thing”) of this area, enough to know that the task of ranking an all-time top ten of classical composers is, in equal parts, ill-advised, beside the point, and impossible, in any given order.
In any field in which there is an accumulation of genuine “greats”, ranking them is, at best, more an exercise in assessing and describing the qualities which made them great, rather than achieving any definitive comparison between them, the latter being impossible. **
And without a shadow of your gout, Anthony Tommassini knew this going in. I’m paraphrasing brutally, but basically he said that he’d made the list as a tool to assess the nature of the musical greatness that the various composers achieved. He specified on many occasions that there were solid cases for many of those he omitted to go in, perhaps at least as strong as the cases he made for those who made the final listing. He said what he was doing was inherently impossible, insofar as objectively tabulating, in any definitive way, a “ranking” of the musical greats under discussion.
This is all cool bananas, though. A well-versed critic trying to assess and explain the reasons for individuals’ greatness in a particular field can be instructive, and entertaining, (I thought his article was both, for what that’s worth), not to mention an intellectual exercise worth the brain-sweat. It’s better than throwing out lumpen assessments of people as “greats” and moving on from there like it’s a given, which as Tommassini points out, is a procedure that helps distance people from classical music and block them out of it, rather than engaging them and bringing them in.
And, as he points out, (and I’m continuing the brutal nature of the paraphrasing) people like lists. They establish order in life, and in this kind of case, in study or enjoyment of a particular area.
(He gives the example of people establishing networks of friends and family as a support group – I guess that kind of fits the area of the discussion in a vague kind of way, but if I found myself thinking about people like that, I’d probably pull my own head off. Still, as a wise Frenchman once said: “You’re kidding – you have mayo on that?!”)
Quite frankly, if you know next to nothing about classical music other than you enjoy some of it, and you were seeking to find out a little more, eventually you’re going to have to defer to a list like this, or book or magazine article that use an analogous process to this. It’s a vast area, and otherwise, how would you know where to start?
His other reason, which is kind of inferred by me from his article, but he states it plainly enough in a pre-amble which is not quite on the main topic, he’s an advocate of classical music, and is keen to pass on his enthusiasm to others. A list of this nature is an accessible way of doing so.
Although, as he points out, the process used to define the list, and the writing about the procedure he used to arrive at it, is more important than the list itself, I’ll cut to the chase and give you the list, prior to some further blather on his choices, not to mention some of mine.
ANTHONY TOMASSINI’S LIST OF THE TEN GREAT CLASSICAL COMPOSERS
(From the New York Times)
Just some random notes from me here. I gather from the little I’ve read of classical music criticism (which would be more than most outside of hardcore classical music fans, but still constitutes “very little”) that the top three in any given order would be the same among most classical music critics, presuming they reside in, for purposes of this discussion, the mainstream among that group.
I quote from Peter Gammond’s book, “Bluff Your Way in Music”: “There are four composers beyond criticism, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and your own particular favourite.” You’ll notice he even had them in the same order, despite the inconvenience of having written his book 45 years earlier than Tommassini’s article. Of course, this could be a purely alphabetical choice in Gammond’s case, come to drink about it. ***
Beyond that, it’s every man for himself, it’s on for young and old alike, last man standing, and any other vaguely sporting-related clichés.
Some of the gentry on Tommassini’s list are there, according to his own descriptive criteria, for their achievements in opera (Verdi, and Mozart to an extent) and/or songs, or lieder (Schubert).
He says up-front (in the pre-amble article, I think) that among the various dilemmas he had in assembling the list was the one about whether opera constitutes something different entirely from other achievements in classical music. This is arguably a valid consideration, in a couple of ways. For one, composing for voice and instruments, particularly with a dramatic/storytelling component essential to the enterprise, is a different undertaking to composing purely for massed instruments. In a constructionist way, it’s a point worth considering.
The other consideration to me is that opera isn’t music. Where I want to hear the human voice in classical music is exclusively when the piece grinds to a halt and someone back in the radio studio mumbles/burps the name of the piece, composer, conductor and orchestra. That will about do me. I know this isn’t a fully developed, well-rounded point of view, but we may as well cut to the proverbial chase. Without further and better information, I can only guess at this, but my strong suspicion is that opera to classical music bears a similar relationship as tennis to sport, i.e. that in each case, die-hard fans of the former are not necessarily real fans of the latter.
To me opera is the stage musicals of the Pleistocene Era, and classical songs are what my sainted mother, Ma Leapster, uses to know when to change over to the other classical music station, and rightly so. (She also uses a French composer, Messiaen, for similar purposes – although deprived of the use of electronics, he managed to compile a considerable body of organ works that all sound like the synthesiser group Tangerine Dream falling slowly down an infinite concrete staircase, accompanied by all equipment including amplifiers.)
Perhaps the nicest way I could put it is that the opera list is perhaps logically, a separate list. (And one I’d probably enjoy reading Mr Tommassini’s opinions on a great deal more than I would the music.) The worst thing you could say about his decision-making process here is that arguably he made the task just that little bit more impossible by not limiting the parameters.
In terms of the construction of the list, it didn’t make a great deal of difference. Mozart would have been in there anyway, and in a similar position, probably. Schubert you could make a case for on the basis of the last couple of symphonies at least, leaving out all the squiggle-song, sounding like any number of dental appointments set to music. Verdi’s the one sore thumb in there, I guess. Personally, I say the one part of opera that IS really music is the overture and entr’acte stuff, with no singing. On that basis, I’d put Rossini in for the timeless set of killer overtures and give Verdi the hook. It’s still only trading one name.
There are some other quirks and interesting departures in Tommassini’s explanations. The two names he kind of semi-apologises for, and allows that many would question their attributes as composers were Schubert and Brahms. Those were ones I had no problems with – although I’d probably only include one if I did my Antediluvian Top Ten.
This is where it becomes necessary to reiterate that the basis on which a critic like Anthony Tommassini assesses and compares the “greatness” of various classical composers is on a level of musical knowledge and understanding way beyond my ken, if not mortal ken, and the vast majority of mortals who are called Ken.
I think he explains the process and his comparisons well, and in a very inclusive manner, but due to the gulf between my musical knowledge and his, there are many times when I find myself in the Uncle Fester Conundrum, i.e. as he once explained to Gomez Addams, “I agree with you, I just don’t know what you mean.”
Even attempting to vaaaaguely outline the procedures he uses would be way outside the scope of this interweb drivel, would take too much time and electronic paper, and I’d probably balls it up anyway. So, I’ll probably mostly stick with the less enlightening approach of “This is what he liked, and here’s what I likes.”
One bit I can’t pay him is how he separated Verdi and Wagner, given that he found them a case of “too close to call”. Again paraphrasing with a cudgel, he basically said he couldn’t separate them but Verdi wasn’t such a bad guy and Wagner, outside of music, was an anti-semitic assclown.
That’s kind of nice, philosophically speaking, but it doesn’t have anything to do with anything. As I’ve had occasion to say many times in the past, and almost inevitably will again in the future, in popular/rock music, we never assess greatness in terms of who were the nicest people, as this would unavoidably end up with only Bono, Neil Young and maybe Bruce Springsteen in the Hall of Fame, with the ultimate result that everybody would listen to glockenspiel music instead. Any small amount of reading will lead you to the conclusion that a tremendous amount of classical composers were drunk, mental, both, and/or had a raft of marital/sexual problems to be going on with. If we rule everyone out on this basis, I think the greatest classical composer of all time may come down to the guy who wrote the theme tune for the ‘60s Miss Marple movies.
If you’re doing a top ten based on “musical greatness”, even given that you’ve acknowledged going in that it’s kind of a sham, you have to stick to the gimmick. When the guy had trouble separating Beethoven and Mozart for the silver medal position, he at least came up with some sort of reasoned, if partially subjective, explanation for why Ludwig got the gong over Wolfie. He didn’t just say that Beethoven should slide in on a degree of difficulty basis because he went deaf later on, or that on a personal life basis, Mozart had the inferior table manners.
All that said, it’s at least as good a list as anyone else’s, and the author’s explanation is the real trip here anyway.
MY LIST, OR AVOIDANCE THEREOF
OK, time for a little plain, and ill-informed, speaking. Here’s who was on his list that I wouldn’t have had on mine.
BACH – No symphonies whatsoever, all a bit fiddly-diddly and needly-noodly for me. I realise I’m automatically the biggest philistine in history for this, by many people’s standards, if not a teenage 7-11 street-corner loitering hoodlum. I realise, at least vaguely, the historical importance of his work. I know he was the real deal. He laid out a template for keyboard composition among many other sky-crackingly immense achievements. However outside of the odd Brandenburg Concerto moment and his organ theme from “Rollerball”, it doesn’t do it for me, and I rarely listen to his stuff. This is one case where I automatically accept that everyone else is in step and I’m out of it, that I’m almost certainly wrong, but he’s still not on my list. I’ve been led to believe that a strong taste for Bach almost ensures the advocate in question has certain tendencies towards ice-baths, higher pure mathematics, wearing whatever their mother suggests deep into middle-age, and avoiding disreputable activities such as attending sporting events, visiting non-arthouse cinemas, if not all cinemas, and consuming brightly coloured cakes. T’aint me, McGee.
SCHUBERT – The unfinished and the last one are pretty great. But take out the stinky songs (a kindness I’m willing to bestow upon any classical composer, as I won’t listen to theirs either) and I think there’s other guys with bigger bodies of great work, or at least worthy of the same consideration.
DEBUSSY – The windy/wafty water-colour Frenchy stuff doesn’t do it for me either.
VERDI – It’s the opera thing again. As mentioned before, if we’re talking music, i.e. where they don’t sing, the opera guy I’d put in is Rossini, for the overtures, where you come away humming the tunes, and in some cases, with indelible mental impressions of Warner Bros cartoon characters performing to those tunes.
WAGNER – You can’t say he didn’t have tunes and riffs people remembered. He gave Coppola a hit toon for “Apocalypse Now”. They even got a whole great Warner Bros cartoon out of him as well. But to me, whenever I listen, there’s a lot of moving air but not a great deal I can, or care to, grip a-hold of. I prefer what I’ve heard of Mahler, who didn’t get a guernsey, or mention at all that I can remember.
BARTOK – I can see the point, absolutely. His music is definitely not easy-listening at first crack, it’s more modernist in tendency (see below) but the construction within it is comprehensive and fascinating. Those who know better might vomit at the comparison for all I know, but in this line, I would have put Bruckner instead. Tommassini declares himself unambiguously as an enjoyer of modern classical music. (Classical music from that point of view is like chess – i.e. any developments that happened after the 19th Century are basically considered “modern”. In fact, in chess you get up to around 1910 and it becomes “ultra-modern”. I think many of the free television networks in this country work on a similar basis.) “Modern” classical music, to the neophyte, or uncultured clods like me, basically usually means tuneless music, with a great deal of scraping noises, and no readily apparent structure. However this impression can be deceptive. Some of it has tunes, but they take a while to notice. Other examples have tunes right there up front, and it seems kind of amazing that anyone missed them in the first place. Some of it is as carefully constructed as the more classical “classical” music that preceded it, only in different directions and with different intent, and once you get your head around it, you can find it, and enjoy it, and maybe dig out a few tunes. And then there’s the stuff that sounds like an 18-wheeler backing slowly over a string section for about half an hour.
Anyhoo, my impression was that Tommassini loves that moderno stuff, but didn’t want his biases to distort the list, and thus screw up his aims in compiling it, by weighting it too forcefully in that direction. (He also held off the same way with opera stuff, when he could have gone nuts in that direction.) As a result, probably the only two guys on the list that you’d classify in the “modern” area of classical music are Stravinsky and Bartok. (He makes a case for many of the others on there being important precursors to what became thought of as “modern” classical.)
Additionally, he explained that he held off naming folks who are still alive and active in the field. ****
Due to this degree of care, and I guess what you could call personal forebearance, it’s certainly not a list weighted towards modern music. Which I guess means that the inclusion of Bartok is justified. Although born in the 1880s, he was a 20th Century composer, whereas Bruckner lived all his life, including the composing bits, in the 19th. Personally, if it’s up to me, I’d still probably put Bruckner ahead.
Any consideration of who I might put on my list, if I even do one, most readily starts with who was left out of Tommassini’s.
In some cases, like Liszt, he mentioned that he’d given them serious consideration. I’ll mostly skip over those. Here’s a roster of guys he left out that I’d at least give consideration to, and even some people who really know about classical music might consider:
Mussorgsky, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Grieg, Sibelius, Johan Strauss II, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Elgar, Liszt, Schumann, Holst, Handel, Herrmann, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Saint Saens, Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Bizet, Chopin (he did go into this subject in some detail), Berlioz, Ravel, Respighi, Charpentier, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich.
I’m probably leaving out heaps, some of which are even accidental omissions. (Don’t care for Vaughn Williams much, do for some of Copland and Grofe and for the purposes of coherent argument and damage limitation, am content to leave those out for now.)
But this is enough to chew on for now and there are some solid-hitters in that line-up, so let’s have a quick crack at ’em.
MUSSORGSKY and The Russians – there was a group of ‘em at around the same time, described as “The Mighty Handful”, which is a line that hopefully no-one will ever use on you in any context relating to a nightclub. (The others were Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui, and Balakirev, who formed a pretty potent back four in the Moscow Dinamo sides of the time.) To me, his is the stuff that stays with you, even though he kind of drunk his way around ever getting to do orchestrations for his piano comps, so that the versions we know are usually orchestrated by somebody else. “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Night on Bald Mountain” are a heck of a head start for getting on the list.
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV – The other one of the Russian gang of that era that stands out a little to me. He actually hung around to finish some bits and pieces and had what you might call a more fully developed resume. His stuff is colourful, likeable, listenable, atmospheric as heck, and I guess the worst you could say about it is that it’s a little picture-postcardish by comparison to the best of the Mussorgsky stuff and lacks that real face-slap of authority that grabs that kind of attention.
DVORAK – Like what he did with folk-dancey stuff and when he dropped the boot into a symphony, it went like the clappers, as the professional musicologists say. Probably seen as all sentimental and old school or something, but to me, this guy really had it.
MENDELSSOHN – This is where you’re getting purely speculation and guess-work, as opposed to the genuine authority of someone like Anthony Tommassini who actually knows the subject he’s talking about. To me, this guy was a bit of a freak. Just turned out amazing music that really shoved a symphony orchestra and a few tunes around with considerable flourish and authority, at least until he turned about 20 and entered an early dotage, apparently. Probably no-one else does, but I kind of think of him and Dvorak in roughly the same light – accessible, tuneful “big music”, that I would call sharp, skilfully made and zesty, only then it comes out sounding like a Bolognese sauce. Still, who doesn’t like Bolognese sauce, other than vegetarians, and they can listen to Bach. Other than ethnic considerations (in that Dvorak was a Bohemian guy and Mendelssohn German) there’s a similarity in that both found inspiration for major pieces in locales from their travels. (Although Dvorak also adapted from folk music in other pieces.) The best of his music is awfully good.
TCHAIKOVSKY – The biggest omission from the list for mine. One listen to his stuff and you tend to think “film music”, although the convenience of sound movies came along a ways after his career. It’s emotive music in that way, although with rather more feeling and rather less obviousness than most film music. Apparently this is all held against him, due to whatever arcane and no-doubt long obsolete critical formulation. Just listen to the stuff – symphonies, overtures, ballet music whatever. Unlike Barry Manilow, this guy really WAS music.
GERSHWIN – Tommassini omitted him from the New York Times list fundamentally as a “bad fit” – he said he appreciated the achievements, but he couldn’t put Georgy-boy in, or Duke Ellington. Well, Duke Ellington wrote uncommonly sophisticated and thoroughly-orchestrated ensemble jazz music. What Gershwin wrote in his longer-form, non-stage musical pieces, was undeniably classical music, no matter how skilfully it incorporated popular, jazz, blues and Latin influences. Maybe you shouldn’t be considering guys for the list on a one-hit wonder basis (and you could make that case about Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition”, Holst “The Planet Suite”, Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique”, Smetana “Ma Vlast” and others) but when the hit is “Rhapsody in Blue” and you’ve set out to capture in music the life of a city, and do so successfully enough that everyone gets it, whether they “get” classical music or not, it’s a hell of an achievement. It’s also an unfeasibly, involvingly ridiculously great piece of music. And Gershwin – along with some of the other guys named – wasn’t REALLY a one-hit wonder.
SIBELIUS – Moody, serious stuff, maybe a little less fiery than the classical guys who get all the posterity gravy and slots on classical music comps for people who don’t know classical music. Not among my “go-to” classical listens, but I do listen, and something always eventually drags me back there. You’d be struggling to convince me he wasn’t worthy of consideration for the list.
JOHANN STRAUSS II – The guy under the Strauss handle who wrote most of the famous Vienna waltzes. Maybe Tommassini thought he fell outside the colouring lines due to the Duke Ellington exception. He wrote a bundle of the best-known, most instantly familiar items in the classical repertoire. Probably not thought of as a deepie – maybe some critical types think there’s the smell of the Andre Rieu’s about him, to make an exaggeration of the case – but like Eddie Murphy once remarked of James Brown, “He WROTE that shit.” They don’t hang around listening to music over hundreds of years because it came with a good floor show and a door prize. Worth a mention at very least. Figure in trifectas.
RICHARD STRAUSS – This is no doubt another case of me not understanding enough about classical music, and thus how Anthony Tommassini conducted his deliberations, to remotely understand this omission. Some great great works in there, particularly his “tone poems”, which basically means a symphony with a storyline, but thankfully no singing. The most famous of these is, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, containing the “Theme from Ric Flair”, aka “2001”, but there’s more and they’re all worth a listen.
I’ll race through this a little now, or we’ll be here until Snoopy Dogg is classical music.
BERLIOZ – If “Symphonie Fantastique” is a one-hit wonder, that was one hell of a hit.
ELGAR – I dunno, I just can’t blow off “The Enigma Variations”, the various marches and shorter pieces, and his symphonic long-form stuff.
BIZET – Suites from his operatic stuff incorporate a great deal of atmosphere, considerable style, and some extremely memorable themes. Creator of the Geelong Football Club theme song, although the banjo-driven antique jazz middle section was a later innovation.
CHOPIN – If I read it right, essentially Tommassini ruled him out because of his “limitations” in writing primarily if not exclusively for keyboard, and because he pursued individualistic creative lines in melody rather than an approach which would have arrived at “musical greatness”. Well, he put Bach in partly due to having created the template for keyboard composition. Chopin wasn’t the innovator Bach was – the cruel dictates of chronology would have made that impossible anyway – but he came up with timeless, perfect miniatures for piano, which still impact on listeners’ ears in a defiantly non-miniature way to this day. That could be one definition of “greatness” incidentally. At some point the distinctions perhaps inevitably become pretty arbitrary.
RAVEL – It may be unfair that the regard in which this guy is held may be directly proportional to the impact that Bo Derek’s kazongas made on the viewer in the movie “10”. I don’t find the Bolero a piece that wears terribly well. The Spanish thing suited him well, as it did other French composers. This is one of those “I wouldn’t, but you might” kind of deals for me.
RESPIGHI and CHARPENTIER – Two names that might as well stand in for a steaming bunch of classical types who are probably thought of as minor leaguers in the broader sweep of musical history, but knocked out some telling bits and pieces that I’d hate to see thrown out with last week’s supermarket fliers. This is the one problem when you try and come up with the defining “greats” list in any field – the smaller pleasures get tossed to the kerb, and thence down the drain.
HANDEL – A little fussbudgetty and toodly-oodly for my purposes, but he wrote a couple of suites of kinda dignified knitting music that still grab an ear to this day, and I have to admit sometimes one of those ears is mine.
GRIEG – Wrote at least a couple of the all-time rock-crusher classical program-toppers, and on the list, it was a case of what Red Buttons so frequently termed, “Never got a dinner.” The hits weren’t all he wrote either.
SAINT-SAENS – I can’t explain graphically enough exactly what I’d like you to do with your blessed “Carnival of the Animals”, but the Organ symphony is one of the mightiest that classical music mightiness ever mightied. Because of that and “Carnival of the Freakin’ Animals” you probably don’t hear as much of his other orchestral music as you should, but on the odd occasion it gets an airing, there’s always something about it that tugs the ear. I daresay he’s a classic example of somebody who would never get considered for an all-time top ten, outside of rampant near-madness level Francophiles, but I suspect this is a little unfair. There’s definitely something there.
HERRMANN – One of many primarily film music composers overlooked in this survey, but you could make a case for Bernard Herrmann as a stand-apart name. It wouldn’t be the Symphony that probably gets him consideration, but the suites from other film scores are worth a listen, and the scores for “Psycho” and, particularly, “Vertigo” are innovative and striking.
And, as the monsignor remarked to the trapeze artist, “I’m going to leave it there.”
FINALLY – A KIND OF LIST
I can’t squirrel out of it now – all the windy preamble effectively squeezes me into a corner where I have to have a bash at a list of my own. There’s got to be some pay-off for any poor schlub in interweb-land who’s managed to wade this far.
I can see why Tommassini said in a way it would have been easier to do a top 5 (i.e. you only go for the big ‘uns) or a top 20 (more wiggle room). Basically if you made it a Top 100, probably the only thing you’d really be arguing about is the order.
Most of my list is completely arbitrary, and would probably change if you asked me the same thing tomorrow. I’ve tried to go on an “excellence of work produced” approach and be objective, but really, what do I know?
But chocks away, anyhow.
Leapster’s Classical Top Ten List
4. Brahms (The last couple of symphonies, the odd concerto and the Hungarian Dances are kind of weighing on my thinking)
5. Richard Strauss
(Mozart is a hell of a chart-writer who turned out what seems like hundreds of symphonies and concertos, not to mention the opera stuff, which in his case bordered on being actually listenable, all of which zinged along with considerable authority and elan, and an immense flair for melody. Only when they’re finished, I can never quite remember the tunes, nor which piece was which. It’s not much of an objection, and the guy was that great, but it’s how his music strikes me, and that’s all I’ve got to go on. In the end I put him in the “Blackmore position”, at #10 of ten.) +
Even looking at this list right now, I can readily find fault with it, and could change the numerical deck-chairs around or replace some of the guys on there with others. If I was going to put any of the “one-hit” guys on there, it would be Berlioz. I don’t listen to Mendelssohn or Chopin as much as the list probably suggests. Shostakovich, kind of an ice-cube/slide-rule alternative to Gershwin with regard to incorporation of jazz music, hasn’t even been mentioned to this point.
I really like the Russians, which probably hasn’t been clearly enough indicated here. Rachmaninov I listen to more than some of the guys on the list. Speaking of lists, Liszt. Paganini’s Caprices I don’t find exactly an unadulterated pure pleasure to listen to, but what a mind, and he came up with themes for every second other composer to borrow and make hits out of, and I think accidentally also invented 80s heavy metal guitar solos.
Anyway this could go on forever, and then I wouldn’t get around to watching the six episodes of “Californication” I recorded earlier. The nourishment of the mind must always come first.
* [This is Australia, and we can have and express our opinions on any given subject in the world, whether or not we know anything whatsoever about it. If we had a national constitution – and from what politicians have been doing and saying over the last few years, I’m fairly sure that we no longer do, presuming we ever did – that principle would be in it.
It’s kind of like that old joke about a recent emigrant to this country who is repeatedly chided about his ignorance by his Aussie workmates. Finally he’s picked up enough English and has got jack of the abuse to the point where he stands his ground. With great righteous indignation, he responds, “You say I know fuck-all, but you’re wrong. I know fuck-nothing!”
At workplaces, bars, on public transport, and in the print and electronic media, you can hear Australians routinely if not invariably sounding off about subjects they patently know absolutely fuck-nothing, if not also fuck-all, about. It’s a great national tradition. (And as the great 20th Century American philosopher, David Lee Roth, once famously observed, “Robbing liquor stores is an American tradition. You got to have respect for tradition.”) This is arguably the major contributor to our other great national tradition of informed debate on any matter beyond baseline levels of complexity – i.e. we don’t have any.]
** [The task is compounded in fields in which the “greats” are less clearly defined (than classical music, for example) perhaps because the field is still in development or under review, lacks a generally accepted critical body of work, and also perhaps because the clueless have been allowed to put their oar in, in the absence of a viable body of criticism, or reasonable common sense.
The second half of 20th Century popular music (running into all of the 21st Century experienced to date) is an example. According to the popular, mainstream or mass media, people like Madonna and U2 are probably accepted as “greats”. The former is, to be kind to the point of clemency, and viewed in the best possible light, something “of her time” – her actual musical achievements are astoundingly paltry – and the latter represents a certain amount of talent expressed in a body of work which palpably lacks the fire, intensity, achievement and transcendence to approach greatness, even with a day-pass. Both are undeniably popular. Only in a field which is still “under development” and growing (i.e. popular music is still genuinely popular, classical music was once that, but is now a specialist interest – the post-1950 popular music is what the mainstream of the general public still responds to) can this confusion between what is popular and what is good, or “great”, exist, particularly if many in the mainstream media writing about it and commenting on it can’t buy a clue. What lacks in the discussion are qualities like posterity and perspective. Even in the better, more directed, mainstream supplements concerning popular culture, I can pick up a weekly edition and come away with a couple of handfuls of fundamental factual errors, borne of inadequate research. Two things you can’t have without essential knowledge are perspective, and any realistic concept of posterity. The message of the mainstream press, for example, and far too much specialist media as well, unfortunately, is that this popular stuff (films, TV, music, comics, whatever) is meant to be “lived” in the here and now, and that researching, or studying, or even thorough old-school criticism of it is not only fuddy-duddyism, but missing the point entirely – popular culture is meant to be lived in the here and now, and is as ephemeral and subject to discarding, dismissal or adjustment as this year’s fashion choice of suit or dress. The “You just don’t get it, man” school of criticism, or actually, defiant non-criticism. This is all a tremendous crock. Something worth having around for the five minutes that it’s “hip”, like this weekend’s popular choice of hat or whatever, is not worth having at all. It’s the work that defies time and retains a currency that’s worth keeping. In 50 years time, if there’s a world and electricity still around, someone will still be listening to Elvis Presley and Beatles recordings. (Hell, there’ll even probably be a few dark enclaves of tattered weirdos who still listen to Carl Perkins and Paul Revere and the Raiders tracks as well.) But if anyone brings up the names Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus in 50 years’ time, people will probably assume they’re the new janitor and receptionist in the building, respectively. Well, they might think “Miley Cyrus” is the proprietary name for some brand of exercise bike, but you get the general idea.]
*** [Gammond’s book – really more of a booklet as published, just 63 small pages in the edition I own – is very funny, and still an excellent entry-level book about classical music, if you can get your hands on it. I have re-read it for enjoyment many times over, and used it for research purposes countless times. Some of the things he says about the recording industry and the business of music in general, still retain a certain amount of pungent pertinence, even though the specifics have changed.]
**** [This fundamentally boils down to the generic sport Hall of Fame induction exemption, which bears a close family resemblance to my avowed policy – sadly ignored by many dunderheads in the mainstream media – that any list of “greatest” movies, or band or albums or whatever, should automatically exclude anything from the last 15-20 years, to allow for later and greater developments in perspective. In many if not most sport Halls of Fame, contemporary athletes are either excluded until they retire, or only included if they’ve had a career of a certain proscribed duration (and of course, of a certain level of achievement over that time). This is all just common sense, so that the headlines of the minute (or last Tuesday, or last August or whatever) don’t colour judgements that are meant to be made taking in the entire sweep of a sport’s, or popular culture field’s history. Of course we tend to remember recent events and achievements more vividly. That’s exactly why they should be excluded, until they’ve passed the test of time. Presuming we want to end up with a list, or Hall, or other citation of “greatness” that’s actually worth a damn, as opposed to the equivalent of this week’s “What’s in/What’s out” fashion hat expose.]
+ [For many years, music mags doing lists of the supposed best rock guitarists would drop Ritchie Blackmore in somewhere around number 50 on top 50 lists, or #100 if the list went that far. Basically they kind of knew he had to be in there, and/or were scared of looking like idiots for leaving him out, but didn’t really want him there. This is partly because of Blackmore not having been seen as a fashionable choice since at least the mid-1970s, and partly because of his peculiar taste in the music he’d involve himself with since then. However it exposes the ridiculous nature of most of these lists, in that, if we’re talking purely about such qualities as expression, innovation, technique and effectiveness in playing electric guitar, Blackmore is an undeniable giant, and many of those inhabiting the same lists and ranked above him, particularly those who appeared over the last thirty or so years, are snivelling midgets by comparison. I mean, if you’re ranking electric guitar players in pop and rock, you put Blackmore at least top 20 as a no-brainer (I’d have him top ten without a second’s hesitation, and probably in the upper half at that) on any set of criteria that make sense, but if it’s a fashion show, well that’s a different animal entirely. The essence of most of these types of lists in the music press – and even more in the mainstream – are fashion parades. What I’ve heard Blackmore play on session stuff from the 60s would, to me, blow the likes of The Wedge, Johnny Marr and Jack White to kingdom come and beyond on the best day of their lives, and Blackmore was only warming up back then.]
A Brief and Cheesy Addendum circa Nov 2012
(I don’t really know what this adds. It may be more of a subtractum.)
Just looking at my top ten list again – not that the original counted for anything other than personal opinion – I’d say Mendelssohn’s too high, and Sibelius and Liszt, to name two, were stiff to miss out. To get a little ‘violins and sweeping tablecloths’ about it all, one guy on there whose stuff seems so unashamedly, perfectly and vibrantly musical whenever you hear it – and he seemed to have a heck of a strike rate too – was Chopin. Maybe flip him and Mendelssohn on my list, and we’re about done. In terms of how much I enjoy his more symphonicky material, Saint-Saens could just about lob on there. On what I’ve heard of him – a few symphonies only – Mahler could, for sure, and he’s hardly even mentioned here at all, not that this will do a great deal to torpedo his posterity in the real world. (Although I don’t think he got much of a name-checking, if any, in the NY Times article either.)
I guess what I’m saying – and not that anyone other than me needs to take any part of this seriously – is that all the composers in the paragraph highlighted in both bold and italics is really worth a look with your ears. And anyone in the more descriptive list that comes straight afterwards, if I’d left them out of the earlier paragraph.