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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Re: The Greatest Composer Ever?

From:

"Drew M. Capuder" <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 8 May 2005 22:41:26 -0400

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Mitch Friedfeld wrote:

>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.

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

I don't much like these 5 criteria, but lets for the moment assume, as
Mitch does, that the "only" criterion is the "ability to express genius
across all or nearly all types of music" (I don't much like that as a
sole criterion either, but I'll work with it for the sake of argument).
Here are some thoughts:

1.  If that is the only criterion, why doesn't Mozart win hands down,
or at least easily over Tchaikovsky?  Not very many people would rank
Tchaikovsky's operas up there with the great Mozart operas.  And while
Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of popular works, so did Mozart--and most people
would view Mozart's best output as better than Tchaikovsky.  I've taken
a more charitable view of Tchaikovsky in recent years (hence I've lost
my membership card in all of the classical snob societies), but I wouldn't
dream of ranking him up there with Mozart (or Beethoven or Bach).

2.  Why is Beethoven so easily dismissed, even where quality diversity
of output is the only criterion?  I (and many people) would rank Fidelio
over any of the Tchaikovsky operas (and I don't subscribe to the belief
that Fidelio is an inferior work).  Once you spot Tchaikovsky a point
for having written more operas (but better?), then doesn't Beethoven
rack up points for a diverse mastery of symphony, string quartets, piano
sonatas, piano concertos, violin concerto, violin sonatas, cello sonatas,
and choral works?

3.  Gasp, why is JS Bach so easily dismissed?  So what if he didn't
write operas, in light of his mastery of large and small-scale choral
& vocal writing.  And it seems to me that with the St.  Matthew Passion
and some of the cantatas, the distinction between those works and "opera"
is tenuous.  Doesn't Bach get a whole lot of credit for the Goldbergs,
the Brandenburgs, The Art of Fugue, the violin concertos, a bunch of the
organ works, the sonatas & partitas for solo violin, the cello suites,
the passions, the B Minor Mass, the keyboard partitas, and the Well-Tempered
Clavier?  Isn't that enough diversity to choke several large horses?

For greatest composers of all time, and with absolutely no meaningful
criteria, I'd rank (but not in any particular order) the following guys
at the top:

   JS Bach
   Mozart
   Beethoven
   Mahler

And maybe:

   Stravinsky
   Debussy
   Wagner

And with honorable mentions to:

   Monteverdi (I'm listening to The Coronation of Poppea right now)
   Carter

How about this for criteria for figuring out who's the mostest and the
greatest:

   When you listen to Mahler's 8th do you really think that the
   universe is bursting out in song?  When you listen to Beethoven's
   9th do you believe there can be a brotherhood of the millions?
   etc.

Drew Capuder

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