Beyond Greatness: What Was at Stake in the The Ten-Best List of Classical Composers

Guest Post by Lawrence Kramer

Who, in rank order, were the ten greatest classical composers? Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic of the New York Times, recently offered an annotated list (January 21, 2011) after airing the question in several articles. Tommasini was well aware that the project was impossible: any such list could represent only one point of view, however well informed. But the question got his readers’ attention. Over 1500 of them weighed in. Apparently it was important for many to get a personal favorite in one of the few available slots. Few, because once you count the names that no one could leave out (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert—Tommasini’s one through four), the list is short and the argument long. As Tommasini observed, it’s easier to pick the top five than the top ten.

Interpreting Music cover imageI had to do some picking myself when working on my most recent UC Press book, Interpreting Music. The question there was not “greatness” but representativeness; I needed a short list to anchor a study with a wide range of topics. The composers involved would have to exemplify a defining link between the very idea of a “classical” music and the activity of interpretation (both understanding and performance). Intriguingly, almost all the composers I chose were either on Tommasini’s list or the list of runner-ups he regretted omitting. (The chief exception was Mendelssohn, about whose status volumes could be written.) This purely unplanned overlap suggests that the world of classical music is marked by—or mired in?—a consistency of judgment that disappears only when it comes to living composers, whom Tommasini wisely ruled out of contention. But if so, why so much interest in the list? Why the concern with whether Haydn, say, or Mahler or Chopin—also-rans all, but what also-rans!—would come in sixth or eleventh?

Of course we all worry over lists, from the Oscars to the Man Booker prize; we’ve been doing it since the ancient Greeks invented the Olympics. And Tommasini is right when he says that the response to his project shows that “for most of us these composers are not monumental idols but living, compelling presences. Just as we organize our lives by keeping those we love in a network of support, we do something similar with the composers we rely on.” But there seems to be something more going on. Many readers were apparently less concerned with the list as a whole than with getting a single composer a place on it. This impassioned one-for-one advocacy seems less akin to reliance or love than to identification; it seems less like fan-worship than like the embrace of an alter ego. That, perhaps, is why a place on the list is important: the composer who expresses the listener’s sense of self deserves public recognition. If the composer receives validation, the self does too.

Such deputy selves are not unique to music, but music (especially classical music?) seems rife with them. Why? Why do we personify ourselves in music? Watch this blog for an answer.

Lawrence Kramer is Professor of Music and English at Fordham University. He is the author of many books, including Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History; Opera and Modern Culture; and Why Classical Music Still Matters, all from UC Press.