21 January 2011

Top 10 "Classical" composers... NY Times poll and critic's list

I always find journalistic exercises like "name the top ten composers of all time" a little silly, but since I have very definite opinions on that particular subject, I couldn't help but write to the NY Times music critic who has such a poll, still apparently going on, although he's revealed his own list already. 

Here's my little rant:

Mr. Tommasini:

I'm sure you've gotten a lot of flack, as anyone would trying to establish a popularity contest for the top ten "classical" composers, which is an inherently subjective exercise in any case. But even with that said, I have to protest, a little. The list of candidates strikes me as almost ridiculously top-heavy with 19th and especially 20th century relatively minor figures, while leaving out at least six or seven truly great and highly influential figures from before 1700. I cite, as inarguably more important in the history of Western music than, say Barber or Fauré (much as I admire both):

Guillaume Dufay
Josquin Des Prez
Giovanni da Palestrina
Claudio Monteverdi
Heinrich Schütz.

I would even venture that someone like Orlando Gibbons or Henry Purcell has a much more solid claim to "top 10" status than Leonard Bernstein or Alban Berg, or even someone like Robert Schumann, who, while certainly truly fine composers, even composers of genius, were hardly key figures in the history of music. (I put Schumann on my voted list, but wouldn't have if the candidate list were less coenocentric, if you will).

Thanks for considering. Perhaps if you called it "Top 10 since 1700" it would be more accurate.

David Studhalter, North Hollywood, California
Truth to tell, I wouldn't actually include Palestrina, myself, just based on personal taste (I find his music tedious in its relentless homogeneity), but he certainly was considered a great figure in his time, and had the same sort of "summing up of a whole stylistic era" role that Bach had 150 years later.  Which I suppose begs the question, what are the criteria? Tommasini's article didn't really specify too clearly... are we talking about pure esthetics, which is really subjective, or historical importance, or musical virtue, however that might be perceived?

Truly, though, anyone who cares to educate his ear will simply have to recognize Dufay's grand isorhythmic motet written for the dedication of the Cathedral in Florence in 1436, Nuper rosarum flores, (for example), as a work of greater genius than anything ever composed by Sibelius or Shostakovich, not that these gentlemen were not in some sense "great" composers. I hold this to be beyond reasonable argument. (Not that there aren't plenty who would argue against it, out of simple ignorance and/or obdurate philistinism).

For some reason, we modern folks have no difficulty recognizing the transcendent genius of some of the visual artists of the Renaissance, but the equally important musical geniuses, while known to specialists, remain discounted even in the eyes... or ears, rather... of educated people who care a great deal about music. I blame a lack of exposure and training the ear to hear what's there. All music requires a process of familiarization with the idiom of the musical language in which it is written, and many people, who really should know better, really only pay lip service even to someone like Bach (secretly detesting the Cantatas and more rigorous contrapuntal music and liking only the Brandenburg Concertos, for example), and refuse to take the time to learn to appreciate the glories of the earlier composers, whose musical idiom is not melodic, but rather much more integral, than that of composers after 1700, in general.

Actually, if you look again at Tommasini's candidate list, you'll notice that there is virtually no one on there from after 1950, either, so it's a selection process of a certain epoch of tuneful musical idiom. I think it's perfectly fine to say, "that's what I like." But if you make up a list and say, the top 10 has to be chosen from this list, you really are imposing your tastes without intellectual foundation for doing so.

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