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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

The Greatest Composer Ever?

From:

Mitch Friedfeld <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 6 May 2005 22:44:01 -0400

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Several years ago Steve Schwartz (I think) speculated about who the
greatest composer was.  The major criterion, as I remember it, was that
the composer had to show talent across all forms of musical expression.
After eliminating the three B's, Mozart, and others, the author came up
with an obscure composer who had shown at least a facility in every type
of musical expression.  I can't remember the composer.

Steve, if that was indeed him, was wrong.

If the *only* criterion for greatness is an ability to express genius
across all or nearly all types of music, then who else but Tchaikovsky
is the greatest composer ever?  I came to this conclusion, of course,
after last night's all-Tchaikovsky program at the Kennedy Center, a
report on which I posted a few minutes ago.

Tchaikovsky composed probably the world's most frequently heard piano
concerto, one of the most frequently heard violin concertos, possibly
the two most frequently performed ballets, one of the greatest operas,
six symphonies all of which have their strengths, and one of the greatest
pieces of stand-alone anthems (1812) ever written.  He has even excelled
in string quartets, one of whose movements is immediately recognizable
to all lovers of classical music; and I have heard people say his most
underrated works are his songs, none of which, sadly, I have yet heard.
I'm having a hard time recalling a piece of liturgical or church music
by Tchaikovsky, but isn't that the only major field in which he has not
written something memorable?

Can anyone beat that?  Steve, was that actually you?

Mitch Friedfeld

 [If Machaut is "obscure", then Mitch has some listening to do.  :-)

 Steve probably never though this would come back and haunt him
 seven years later.  But it has.  Unfortunately, due to the limit
 on archive space we've been allotted for the list, Steve's original
 post is no longer online, however, I have included it below for
 clarity.  -Dave]

   Date:         Mon, 18 May 1998 09:26:37 -0500
   From: Steven Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>
   Subject:      World's Greatest Composer Ever

   Who is the Greatest Musical Genius of All Time?

   First, let's establish some criteria, as objective as we can
   make them.  Merely liking a composer the most of course doesn't
   mean that composer is the GM GoAT, nor does most people liking
   a composer the most - that's just the vox populi fallacy.  I've
   come up with five criteria that seem reasonable to me.  The
   Greatest Musical Genius of All Time must

   1.  Have a lasting influence on the course of music.

   2.  Be proficient in all genres of his day.

   3.  Show a wide expressive range.

   4.  A consistency of result.  Not everything must be wonderful,
   but a preponderance should.

   5.  I'm not as sure about this one, but at least one semi-popular
   hit.  To me, this shows that the music speaks to everybody.

   At least these criteria I feel must be met.  You may have others,
   but for now grant me these five.  Since most of this ultimately
   comes down to a process of elimination, let's survey the list
   of obvious candidates:

   1.  Josquin, considered by his contemporaries the greatest
       composer of his time
   2.  Henry Purcell
   3.  J. S. Bach
   4.  G. F. Handel
   5.  F. J. Haydn
   6.  W. A. Mozart
   7.  Beethoven
   8.  Berlioz (admittedly, a long shot)
   9.  Brahms
   10.  Wagner
   11.  Bruckner
   12.  Mahler
   13.  Richard Strauss
   14.  Debussy
   15.  Ravel
   16.  Schoenberg
   17.  Stravinsky
   18.  Bartok
   19.  Hindemith
   20.  Varese
   21.  Webern
   22.  Boulez
   23.  Carter
   24.  Sessions

   It seems to me that we must eliminate Josquin on the grounds of
   lasting influence.  Even his fans probably admit that Josquin's
   music requires a kind of mental time-travel.  I think we can
   eliminate Purcell on the same grounds.  J. S. Bach gets dropped
   because he did not excel in opera; Handel, because his fugal
   technique is just about non-existent and because his instrumental
   chamber works are noticeably lesser than his vocal music and
   large orchestra pieces.

   Haydn disappears because, again, he did not excel in opera.
   Mozart's tough to eliminate, but I'd do so on the basis of lack
   of variety in his orchestral sound - which indicates a limitation
   on his expressive range.

   Beethoven - well, what can possibly be said against Beethoven?  For
   one thing, his handling of form, while daring, is by no means sure.
   For details, read Ernst Toch's essay on the Fifth Symphony in The
   Shaping Forces of Music or Vaughan Williams's essay on the Ninth in
   National Music and Other Essays.  Also, his songs are on a markedly
   lower level than his instrumental and choral music.

   Berlioz - eliminated by #2.  No chamber music to speak of.  Damn, I
   thought he had a better chance.

   Brahms - again, done in by criterion #2.  No opera.  Wagner
   eliminated by the same criterion, but for the reason of only one
   decent piece of absolute music and that he couldn't write fast,
   light music.

   Bruckner - an exalted mode of expression, but essentially limited
   to that.  No opera.

   Mahler - no opera or mature chamber work.

   Strauss - too variable throughout his career.

   Debussy - very hard to eliminate, but no mature symphony.

   Ravel - ditto.

   Schoenberg - I believe his influence will last, even if composers
   only react against him.  His expressive range is enormous, from
   delicate and humorous to exalted.  He excels in chamber music,
   symphony, concerto, variation form, etc.  But he's no opera
   composer.  Moses und Aron bores the earwax out of most people.
   Reluctantly, I let him go.

   Stravinsky - weak chamber output.  His influence has waned.

   Bartok - no symphony.

   Hindemith - no lasting influence.

   Varese - limited output.  No hit.

   Sessions - limited expressive range

   Carter - no hit

   Boulez - no hit.

   That eliminates the first group of candidates.  Perhaps they're
   merely popular choices after all.  But let's not give up just
   yet.  I could go through another list of candidates, but for
   my money, there is only one composer who meets all criteria:
   Guillaume de Machaut, who invented polyphony.  Now THAT's a
   lasting influence.  He excelled in all the genres of his day,
   including poetic ones.  He was also a major literary theoretician.
   His expressive range is wider than any other composer of his
   time.  Everything that has survived is beautifully worked.  And
   he has a semi-hit - the Messe de Notre Dame.

   Machaut, QED.

   Schwartzo

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