Listening in, hearing back

by Seth Brodsky, author of From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious


I’ve been thinking a lot about the categories historians rely upon, and their strange mix of power and precariousness—all the more so when music is involved. So I wanted to point to what I think is the most precarious (and yes, maybe the most powerful) category in my book From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious. It’s that last word: unconscious.

Cover image for From 1989

I agree with psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller that the matter of the unconscious ultimately comes down to a question of faith—which is to say, something that doesn’t necessarily belong in a history. As Miller puts it: “Do you believe—or not—in the existence of the unconscious? Of something more or less like what Freud called the unconscious?” Freud’s most schematic account of the unconscious, from 1915, makes clear he’s not talking about some personal cellar of the mind. He’s talking about something that is, still today, is very difficult for culture to digest: a site of self where all the acts and manifestations which I notice in myself and do not know how to link up with the rest of my mental life must be judged as if they belonged to someone else …” If the unconscious is a cellar, it’s not your cellar—but it’s still in your house.

This suggestive power would seem to disqualify the psychoanalytic unconscious as a foundation for serious history writing. We sit now on a century of various histories-of-spirit, psycho-biographies, and highbrow hack-jobs masquerading as hermeneutics-of-suspicion, all fueled by the roaring irrefutability of the Freudian unconscious. Ironically, the latest entry is from the career Freud-basher Frederick Crews, who does nothing less—I don’t think I’m exaggerating!—than reveal how Freud’s unconscious desires invalidate his entire project.

I’m a believer in the unconscious—the unconscious in general, as an unprovable but dynamic element of individual psychic life and collective social life. But in relation to music history, I felt a strong urge to contain my engagement with it; I’m not especially interested in psycho-biography and with the allegedly “whole person”; in dealing with the work especially of living composers, I wanted to avoid getting too far in their heads. I wanted to stay more in their ears—to try, paraphrasing Freud, to hear all the acts and manifestations” in their musical life that could be “judged as if they belonged to someone else.” The 1989 project hence began as a robustly intertextual one, a way of re-organizing an otherwise meaninglessly organized field—say, the alphabetized list of all works written and premiered around 1989—according to the axiom of a contained otherness: incorporated, repressed, misrecognized, flaunted. My first attempts (below) were crude; they owed something to Freud’s Rome, imagining the year as an archeological site literally resting atop its own sedimented musical history.

I was struck by the existence of actual canonical strata—a Bach layer, a Schubert or Beethoven layer, even a Liszt layer. Were these evidence of something coherent, consistent beyond the mere invocation of a common name and corpus? Beyond any of the resulting book’s successes and failures, I still think this intertextual paradigm is the most promising, the most catholic: what, after all, is more embracing than the question of what newer music has done to be-or-not-be older music? Music history as a millennial game of telephone, the noisiness of reception. How might new music histories be histories, not just of hearing, but mishearing? And how might the history of a long musical modernism—of music trying very hard to be new, modern, modo, now—intensify this process, making mis-hearings and missed encounters the very paradigm of musical desire? A desire for less signal and more noise.

These questions eventually led me to organize European new music in 1989 through an series of “heterotopian networks,” (above) in which intertextual and thematic coincidences yielded webs of works all linked by some other music. The newer work became what Michel Foucault called a heterotopia, an “other space”—radically autonomous, but actually existing —in which older music was misheard, reconfigured, or, in the book’s eventual concept-metaphor, analyzed, not unlike a patient in a psychoanalytic clinic. These networks, eventually formalized, ranged from fairly objective—a group of six “Schubert” pieces, say—to quite subjective—a group of works all dealing with non-existent places, u-topoi, and which I labeled “nowheres.” And each of these networks was themselves a kind of Freudian Rome.

The “Lyric Suites” network, for instance, grouped a series of otherwise very different string quartets that all had some connection to song—but a repressed or stifled song, hidden or encrypted, sung sotto voce or at night, to lost time or lost communities and persons, or to the dead. Emergent nodes began to quilt the otherwise proliferating associations in place: Luigi Nono’s 1980 quartet Fragmente—Stille, an Diotima, Alban Berg’s Lyrische Suite from 1926, Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets from a century before that. In one case, a thread emerged leading from the sixteen-note “shadow song” near the end of Helmut Lachenmann’s Second String Quartet from 1989; to the “broken song” from Nono’s Fragmente, quoting a 15th-century chanson; to the “hidden song,” setting a Baudelaire poem, that Berg encrypted in the last movement of his Suite; to the “failed song” that the first violin stutters in the famous “beklemmt” section from the Cavatina in Beethoven’s Op. 130.

Graphic of the “Lyric Suites” network

Such threads are what helped convince me to take a psychoanalytic account of musical modernism as more than mere heuristic. From the beginning of Freud’s formalizations, the psychoanalytic unconscious has experienced its own repressions, none more intense and persistent than of its radical negativity. To take one famous example, the “Oedipus complex” is on the one hand a way of accounting for a network of repressed fantasies and fears that seem to mark many people in early childhood. But it soon became a means of repression—repression of the cavernous uncertainties still plaguing patients otherwise convinced, fruitlessly, that they were suffering from Oedipus complexes; repression, on the part of the child, of their own cavernous uncertainty about where they stood in relation to others. This other unconscious is not a positive content to unearth, pin down, expose, judge; rather, it is a persisting negative, unavailable to the psyche that suffers it. For Freud, and for Lacan after him, this unconscious was a fundamentally intersubjective affair, and, more importantly for music, an auditory one. It involved listening, not for proof, but for evidence and testimony; it required an auditor who can hear what consistently fails to give voice to itself. This is where I ended From 1989: trying to listen to failed voices. I asked if musical modernism is not, in some sense, what psychoanalysis sounds like when it wanders into the concert hall. Or, more pointedly, if psychoanalysis is what musical modernism sounds like when it enters the disenchanting space of the clinic.


Seth Brodsky is Associate Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago.


Martha Feldman Wins the Otto Kinkeldey Award at AMS in Vancouver

We are delighted to announce that Martha Feldman was awarded the Otto Kinkeldey Award for her book, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, last week at the American Musicological Society’s annual conference.

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The Otto Kinkeldey Award each year honors a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year by a scholar who is past the early stages of his or her career. “Early stages” of the career is normally considered to mean no more than ten years beyond completion of the Ph. D. degree.

Recently released in paperback, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds has received considerable praise from reviewers, and we’re proud that Martha’s work has earned this significant recognition.

“Rich in scholarship and filled with subtle analysis.”
—Colm Tóibín, London Review of Books
“This is a remarkable book. . . . An impressive achievement.”
—Nicholas Clapton, Early Music
“Meticulously researched, beautifully written and richly illustrated . . . In this book, as erudite as it is gripping, there is little to criticize.”
Cultural History
For related content, see our series of posts relating to  or other awards-related news.

Classical Music Month: Wagner contra Nietzsche

By Karol Berger, author of Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

This guest post is in celebration of #ClassicalMusicMonth. Stay tuned for more posts throughout September, and enjoy free access to curated Classical Music articles.


In taking a close look at Wagner’s late music dramas, I followed two aims. First, I wanted to penetrate the “secret” of their large-scale form. From early on, the novelty of Wagner’s formal principles provoked skeptics. Nietzsche, the most perceptive of Wagner’s critics, quipped that the composer was “our greatest miniaturist in music,” thus at once praising Wagner’s ability to capture the most subtle stirrings of his characters’ souls in small but eloquently expressive gestures and blaming him for his inability to weld such gestures into larger wholes. The answer I found to this accusation turned out to be different from what I had expected. I began under the influence of Wagner’s own theories and these naturally emphasized the distance between the composer’s proposed innovations and the current operatic practice. Turning from the theories to the works themselves, I gradually discovered just how deeply indebted to traditional operatic procedures Wagner remained to the end. Today, my admiration for Wagner’s control over unprecedentedly long spans of time is greater than ever, but my understanding of how this control was achieved has been transformed.

Beyond Reason cover
Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche (November 2016)

But Wagner was not only a great composer; he was also a significant dramatic poet and a restless thinker. The second aim that guided me here has been to see the ideological import of Wagner’s dramas against the background of the worldviews that were current in his lifetime and, in particular, to confront his works with Nietzsche’s critique. What connects the two aims is my conviction that a grasp of Wagner’s large forms affords insights into the dramatic and philosophical implications of his works. It turns out that the music dramas of Wagner’s later years reacted to every major component in the complex ideological landscape that emerged during his century, a landscape which, I believe, is still the one we inhabit today. The confrontation with Nietzsche, a rival cultural prophet, takes a particular urgency in this context, since what was at stake in the philosopher’s objections to the artist was precisely the ideological import of Wagner’s works.

Also here the direction my project took surprised me. Like so many people today, I had begun loving the music, but suspecting the message. Having finished the project, I still love the music and still find some aspects of the message disturbing, but disturbing for different reasons and in different works. My understanding of the Wagner-Nietzsche relationship has been transformed too. I had begun convinced first, that Nietzsche’s objections to Wagner were by and large well taken and second, that the study of their encounter would be likely to illuminate Wagner’s dramas, but not Nietzsche’s books. Today I still admire Nietzsche’s critical acumen, but I also see not only that Wagner’s works can defend themselves surprisingly effectively against some of the philosopher’s central strictures, but also that these works implicitly offer an unexpectedly perceptive critique of a number of Nietzsche’s most cherished doctrines. This is why I felt the need to amplify Nietzsche contra Wagner with Wagner contra Nietzsche.


Karol Berger is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Department of Music, Stanford University. His award-winning books include Musica Ficta, A Theory of Art, and Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow.


Classical Music and the Reinvention of Pleasure

We listen to music for pleasure: that seems obvious. But what does it mean? I devote some pages to that deceptively simple question in my book The Thought of Music. The book proposes that music is one of our primary means of understanding the world. If that’s right, my question should be: What understanding of the world does taking pleasure in music put into practice? We don’t usually ask music such things; I think we should.

9780520288799_KramerBefore the European Enlightenment and the rise of the modern middle class, the opposite of pleasure tended to be virtue. Afterwards, the opposite tended to be pain. This change (always imperfect, never without precedent) coincides with major social changes including the development of modern ideas of privacy and private space and the concept of “ownership” in oneself. Such ownership also extended to owning things, amid the first stirrings of consumer culture. Seeking pleasure in life, and taking pleasure in objects, became principles of what the historian Michael Kwass called “rational hedonism.” The idea that pleasure is inherently corrupting faded; the idea that a well-lived life included the quest for pleasure thrived.

In the later eighteenth century, the instrumental music now basic to the classical repertoire found ways to give pleasure on the same terms. And it still does. A favorite form, the theme and variations, helped foster its era’s reinvention of pleasure. Previously, “variations” had usually meant the invention of different melodies over a repeating bass. After mid-century, the default form changed to theme and variations: the varied repetition of a self-contained melody, usually with similar harmony. The process is a series broken by short pauses, not a continuous evolution. Each variation is a distinct item with its own mood, color, and texture. In many cases, the series serves no end other than the pleasure of sampling and savoring. (In time the question of whether to seek something more would become central.) The listener or performer acts like a collector of musical pleasures and decides which to prize most.

Such variations are the very embodiment of rational hedonism: hedonistic because they aim to please and nothing more, and rational because their pleasures depend on an exquisite balance of difference and repetition. A listener who takes pleasure in this music participates in the understanding that supports it. But so does anyone who listens for pleasure alone, no matter to what: when we listen this way, we are all rational hedonists. Whether we should seek something more remains an open question, or rather many questions, all of them posed, to my ears, by the thought of music.


TAG_5116Lawrence Kramer is Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and the author of numerous books. His trilogy on musical understanding includes Interpreting Music, Expression and Truth, and The Thought of Music. He is also a prizewinning composer and the editor of 19th-Century Music.

 

 

 

 

 


Moral Fire and Mitt Romney

Moral Fire cover This guest post is cross-posted from Joseph Horowitz’s blog, Unanswered Question. Horowitz is the author of  Moral Fire and many other books. Previously a New York Times music critic, then Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, he is currently Artistic Director of DC’s Post-Classical Ensemble.

Moral Fire and Mitt Romney
by Joseph Horowitz

As readers of this blog know, I am the author of a recently published book titled Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle. My topic is culture as an agent of moral empowerment. That is: my portraits are of four late nineteenth century Americans who believed that exposure to Beethoven and/or Wagner made people “better” – more humane, more compassionate. This is, I argue, a notion far out of fashion – and yet pertinent today.

Last week I received an email from a colleague – an American historian – inquiring if reviewers of Moral Fire “got it.” I wrote back that the reviews have been uniformly favorable, but cursory. Only one reviewer (in the Wall Street Journal) had expressed a caveat. She was disconcerted that I did not seem bothered that Henry Higginson, Laura Langford, and Henry Krehbiel were elitist “paternalists.” This caveat initially perplexed me because Moral Fire emphasizes that Higginson, Langford, and Krehbiel were democrats. That is: as inventor, owner, and operator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Higginson reserved 25 cent tickets for all performances. As founder of the Seidl Society (a remarkable Brooklyn women’s club that presented Wagner at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at Coney Island), Langford brought working women and orphans to her Brighton Beach concerts (which were even less expensive than Higginson’s at Symphony Hall). As the “dean” of New York music critics, Krehbiel opined that the Dahomians at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition (despised and caricatured by other writers) were “amazingly ingenious” musicians, more rhythmically sophisticated than “Berlioz in his supremest efforts with his army of drummers.”

In the context of the late Gilded Age, an “elitist” would be , e.g., John Sullivan Dwight, whose Harvard Musical Association concerts were only attendable by members of the Harvard Musical Association. No less than Higginson or Krehbiel, Dwight believed that Beethoven was morally empowering. But he feared the rabble; Boston’s Irish seemed uneducable to him.

Higginson, Langford, and Krehbiel, by comparison, were zealous democratic pedagogues. Higginson delighted in the variety of his patrons at Symphony Hall (a classless auditorium without boxes). Langford’s Society pioneered in presenting lectures with orchestra. Krehbiel wrote the most widely used primer for musical laymen. They shared a conviction that learning and (especially) the arts would spread sweetness and light.

Read the full piece at Unanswered Question.


An Acquiring Eye: Mary Francis on Cinema and Music Books and Journals

In the newest Acquiring Eye feature, Humanities Publisher Mary Francis gives us her take on the music and cinema titles and journals coming out this spring.

Starting with one of the flagship publications from our Journals Division, Film Quarterly is always a treat to find in the mailbox.  Never an issue goes by when I don’t learn something new (even after years of working in cinema and media studies), or discover a terrific new writer, or am compelled to go find a local screening of one of the films discussed–or all of the above!

What could be better?  Film Quarterly online, of course.   Editor Rob White supplements FQs regular feast of articles, columns, and reviews with a range of in-depth web exclusives, including more reviews of films, dialogs between writers and filmmakers, festival reports, and much more.    My favorites are the dialogs around recent films and TV shows.  White and Nina Powers on Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (a kind of continuation of their thoughtful response to von Trier’s controversial “Antichrist”) challenged me to revisit a film that confounded me on first viewing.  And the excellent discussion of Todd Haynes’s version of “Mildred Pierce” was a treat for fans of both Haynes’s interpretation and the classic 1945 version.

Ellington Century by David Schiff — Was Duke Ellington the greatest composer of the twentieth century?  It would be easy to say that he was the greatest jazz composer.  But David Schiff’s new book challenges readers to break down the false barriers between jazz, classical, and pop music to appreciate Ellington’s amazing music in the broadest possible context.  Schiff’s elegant, evocative prose opens our ears to the way that Ellington’s music is as vital to musical modernism as anything by Stravinsky, more influential than anything by Schoenberg, and has had a lasting impact on jazz and pop that reaches from Gershwin to contemporary R&B.

 

 

 

Weill’s Musical Theater by Stephen Hinton — Speaking of composers whose work crossed all barriers, Stephen Hinton’s new book is the first truly comprehensive treatment of Kurt Weill’s music. Hinton’s elegant prose and mastery of the history of twentieth century music finally give Weill his due as one of the century’s great masters. Weill wrote some of the world’s most fantastic songs (try to get “Mack the Knife” out of your head after reading this), and a huge variety of works for the stage, such as the Threepenny Opera, that are still performed today.  ‘’Variety” is the key: Weill’s output ranged across conventional operas, Broadway musicals, experimental forms, works for children, and more.  He was a self-conscious innovator (like his most famous collaborator, Brecht), and Hinton pays close attention to Weill as a ‘reformer’ with an important role in the history of opera and music theater.

 

Frontier Figures by Beth Levy — Composers have been as invested as anyone in the myths of the American West, and Beth Levy’s prize-winning first book looks at how American composers seized upon the American West as a creative cornerstone on which to build a uniquely American identity.  Composers such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Charles Cadman, and Arthur Farwell were all city born and bred, educated in Europe, with little personal experience of life on the range, yet deeply invested in exploring how music could embody the sounds of the west.  Levy investigates what these composers knew (or thought they knew) about Indian music, the real life of farmers and cowboys, and the history of western expansion.  She ranges from Mexican music at Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Dvorak composing symphonies in Iowa, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, and the music played at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows to Hollywood westerns, Agnes DeMille’s ‘cowboy ballets,’ and what the American west did (and does) still mean to composers living more than a century after the close of the frontier.

 

Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth Century Music by Susan McClary — We often think of so-called early music as poised and quaint, distanced from our contemporary expectations of music’s emotional power.  But the music of the 17th century is quite charged: harmonically tense, virtuosic, lushly orchestrated, in a word, intense. What were the social and historical reasons that music of the period, sacred or secular, prized emotional intensity so highly?  And how was this linked to the many technical innovations of the period?  McClary’s clear, evocative prose brings the heady emotional quality of this music alive, showing how this music retains its powerful immediacy for listeners.

 

 

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx by Wayne Koestenbaum — Wayne Koestenbaum is a unique critical voice.  He is deeply engaged with the ways in which all the arts are in some way performing arts, whether one is the artist or the audience. All his writings grapple with the personal, lyrical dimensions of performing, listening, watching, remembering, and learning via poetry, prose, making music, watching films, gazing on artworks.  Kosetenbaum’s playful and astute approach makes him perfectly suited to write a critical love letter to the sublime performance style of Harpo Marx, whose mute physical comedy brought the style and affect of the silent era into the otherwise wildly noisy, anarchic world of the Marx Brothers films.  He blends close readings of the visual style of the films with more personal reflections on the Marx Brothers as vaudevillians, as modern movie stars, as Jews, as brothers, as both exemplifying and breaking all the rules of comedy.

 

Black Hole of the Camera by JJ Murphy — There are many books on the artworks of Andy Warhol, but there has never been a comprehensive book on Warhol’s films until now.  Given that there are hundreds of films (if you count the short, compelling Screen Tests), many of them challengingly long (Empire), rebarbative, subversive, or simply, arrestingly strange, the challenge of trying to see this vast and influential body of work on its own terms is great.  JJ Murphy, himself an award-winning filmmaker, does an amazing job of looking all the entire corpus of Warhol’s film and video work, and brings his own artist’s eye to these challenging, much-misunderstood works.

 

 

 

Poetics of Slumberland by Scott Bukatman — Why are comics and animation particularly suited to visualizing the fantastic, the impossible, the crazy and comic? From the start, animation, comics, and early cinema were about delight in seeing a fantastic creature (Gertie the Dinosaur, her contemporaries, Muybridge’s galloping horses, or the inhabitants of Little Nemo’s dreams) come to life. Bukatman looks a how animation and cinema were new technological realms for familiar aesthetic pleasures that go back to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, and Pygmalion. (Bukatman’s discussion of why My Fair Lady absolutely had to become a movie musical is quite amazing.) Part of the pleasure is ambivalent: the newly animated creature usually moves quickly beyond the control of the creator to comic, fantastic or scary effect (sometimes all three).  Bukatman carries his argument through related genres and phenomenon, from superheroes whose actions destroy the frames of comic books to CGI monsters in contemporary summer blockbusters and digital enhancements of live performers on stage.


Becoming Haunted: The Music in Your Head

Lawrence KramerGuest Post by Lawrence Kramer

“Why do we personify ourselves in music?” The question, emphasis included, came up in an earlier blog post of mine dealing with the impromptu competition among readers of the New York Times to secure their favorite classical composers a spot on a ten-best list constructed by the newspaper’s chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini. The italicized personify registers the almost perverse strangeness of a musical phenomenon so familiar that we too often take it for granted. Music is, after all, something we make; it is not what we are. We may “express” ourselves by it (that’s a complicated issue), but as an artistic creation shouldn’t it be more like a thing than like a person? More, say, like a portrait than like the sitter? Why does music, and more particularly melody, because melody is the main thing involved, so readily worm its way into our sense of self?

One possible answer—speaking of worms—may be suggested by another strange but familiar musical phenomenon, the sometimes maddening persistence of a tune stuck in one’s head. Oliver Sacks recently proposed calling such unrelenting mental melodies “brainworms”; a half century or so earlier, Theodor Reik gave them the more Romantic name of “haunting melodies.” Both Sacks, a neurologist, and Reik, a psychoanalyst, think of music stuck in the head as aberrant, linked in some way to pathology. Yet both also acknowledge a link to normality, or rather to the very foundations of the sense of normality. Sacks connects the persistence of the brainworm to our desire for the repetition of what gives pleasure; the adult brain finds in the melody a relic of the child’s insistence on hearing the same story, the same words, again. Reik thinks of the expressive quality of the melody as a residue of conflict, trauma, or intense emotion—something the self isn’t finished with. For Sacks the brainworm exaggerates the sense of well-being with which we would like to identify ourselves; for Reik the haunting melody returns us to a critical moment in our emotional lives, a moment that we may keep secret even from ourselves but that is one of the keys to who we are.

Melody has this power because it is both immediately expressive and infinitely repeatable. When the brainworm becomes oppressive, it is because expressiveness has been overtaken by repetition and rendered meaningless; when the haunting melody becomes absorbing, it is because the expressiveness has kept itself alive, given itself rhythmic vitality, by harnessing the repetition. Take these processes out of people’s heads and you get the familiar uses of melody to give commodities a personality and to tag the personalities of characters in movies (though straightforward tagging, a misapplication of the Wagnerian leitmotif, is less common than it once was). Put the same processes back in people’s heads, this time on a voluntary basis, and you get personification. Listeners absorb themselves in the music they love precisely as if they were being haunted by it—only haunted for real, haunted in the flesh.

  

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


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.