January 21, 2011

"I think of the whole history of classical music as a mountain."

"You start at the bottom of one side, which is medieval chant. You climb up the mountain, go down the other side, and when you reach the ground again, you're at late 20th century minimalism.... At the top of the mountain — fusing the best aspects of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic (with a dash of prophetic modernism) in magnificent, awe-inspiring structures — is Beethoven."

Jaltcoh completes his countdown of the top 10 greatest classical composers.

From the comments to yesterday's post (##4 and 3): "Wow. I thought that I love Brahms about as much as anyone, and even I can only put him 4th. I respect your courage."

AND: Here's the corresponding NYT analysis by Anthony Tommasini, putting Bach 1st — and Brahms  7th.

26 comments:

Roger J. said...

I think these top 10 lists are wonderful for conversation starters--as far as what "critics" say, well they have opinions just as I do. And IMO their opinions are no more valid than mine, since ultimately we are talking about a question of personal taste. (of course, that's why art in all forms works so well)

prairie wind said...

If you love Brahms about as much as anyone, then you love him only as much as "anyone" does. If you love him more than anyone you know, then you should say that.

Sports announcers do this, too: When the announcer means that he is particularly impressed with a player's skill, he will say, "He's as good a quarterback as any I've seen!" The excited tone of voice helps the listener understand that he means this player is better than most, but the words don't say that.

edutcher said...

Oh.

Well, if it's his list, he's welcome to it.

Roger J is right, though, lists can be provocative, but, in the end, it's one man's/woman's opinion.

Chase said...

Beethoven is great.

But if you want to rank according to musical gift, according to actual level of creative talent,

you have to rank Bach at No 1.


It's really all about what the potential maximum is. Sure, the output is what is judged. But let's use the example I give my students:

Greatest all around female singer on the planet? Streisand. hands down. (Am not a fan of her politics, btw).

She starts at a higher level of gift than almost any other human being - the instrument is close to unparalled. Now others can take their gift and approach incredible heights - Celine Dion, early Whitney Houston, Aretha, Beverly Sills.

But you can only go as far as you have capacity. Streisand's tonal range (the high and low notes) is not as large as many other great singers. But she starts with a larger expressive and tonal capacity than just about anyone else in the world.

She has some of the world's best recordings - and some of the most mediocre (Babe Ruth was both home run king and also the strike-out king for several decades, remember?). I do not believe she has, even in her sixties, reached her still available pinnacle - her gift is that big.


All that said to say basically the same about Bach's composition talent.

Richard Dolan said...

These rankings are interesting but for reasons other than where one places Mozart in relation to Beethoven, Brahms, Bach or Berg. It's the framework of the analysis that is striking: the idea of commensurability over time, history's progress from less to more (units to be decided later), and the power of labels to suggest unity where there is mostly diversity. I think Jaltcoh is a closet Platonist.

Jaltcoh says that the 'mountain' has nothing to do with notions of better/worse -- it's supposed to be a pictorial metaphor for technical elements of musical structure, going from simpler to more complex and back down again over time. Alas, the image is fighting its intended meaning -- and, when I think of it, all I hear is Mother Superior warbling away in the Sound of Music. Doesn't do much for me.

Imagine a similar exercise with paintings -- where would the 'mountain' metaphor get you, and where would the pinnacle be? Probably no where you'd want to be. In part, I think it's because we've been trained to regard modern painting as the embodiment of a refined aesthetic; and modern music as an aesthetic that's lost its way (and certainly its audience).

jaltcoh said...

Jaltcoh says that the 'mountain' has nothing to do with notions of better/worse

I said higher up "doesn't necessarily mean 'better.'" That's actually a very weak statement. I wouldn't say they have "nothing to do with" each other.

Ann Althouse said...

"She starts at a higher level of gift than almost any other human being - the instrument is close to unparalled."

You should have been here the other day when I was calling her a goddess. Seriously.

ricpic said...

Once there were giants, now there are pygmies.

Could there be any statement more destructive of present striving, in any area of endeavor, than that? And yet that's what these greatness rankings boil down to. If I were a contemporary composer I'd resent the hell out of making any composer, including even Beethoven, an intimidating and out of reach monument.

Ann Althouse said...

"Alas, the image is fighting its intended meaning -- and, when I think of it, all I hear is Mother Superior warbling away in the Sound of Music."

You mean Maria? On the mountaintop. She wasn't Mother Superior. I love the image of Beethoven whirling around on the mountaintop like Julie Andrews.

Smilin' Jack said...

You start at the bottom of one side, which is medieval chant. You climb up the mountain, go down the other side, and when you reach the ground again, you're at late 20th century minimalism

Oh, but the decline didn't stop there. We're far below sea level now.

Chase said...

Since my wife just read my comment, I need to explain that by tonal capacity I mean the various productions of tone: dark and bright are two forms of tonal production (think opera singer vs Johnny Mathis, for just one example.

Streisand can bend her formation of tones so many ways it's dizzying.

Richard Dolan said...

I meant Mother Superior singing Climb Every Mountain, as she sent Maria off to face the seven kids chez Captain Von Trapp. (If you had had daughters, you'd know it by heart.)

Shanna said...

I always found Mozart best for studying when I was in school. Don't know if that's a good reason to put him first, but there you go.

Ann Althouse said...

"I meant Mother Superior singing Climb Every Mountain, as she sent Maria off to face the seven kids chez Captain Von Trapp. (If you had had daughters, you'd know it by heart.)"

Thanks. I don't like that song. We sang that in school back in the 60s. That and "You'll Never Walk Alone." The last song in another musical. Inspirational but depressing, especially out of context from the story. Climb *every* mountain?! Till you find your dream. Come on. I like dreams too, but wouldn't it make a lot more sense to cut back on dreaming?

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, I know they were running from Hitler in the end. But running from Hitler isn't searching for your dream.

Peter said...

It seems that JAC conflates the concept of "structure" in music with the idea of audience reaction and expectation.

In highly structured music, he explains, how could tell where you are in a piece -- beginning, middle, end -- even if you've never heard it before. (I assume he means if you are accustomed to listening to classical music but never heard that piece before.)

20th-century music, alternately, in less structured because it "challenges" such expectations.

That seems to sell the concept of formal structure short, even if you agree with every one of his rankings.

Schoenberg or Berg, Bartok or Ives may challenge our expectations, but each of them create works that are highly -- or perhaps deeply -- structured. They are just exploring different ways of thinking about tonal, melodic, and and harmonic structure.

A friend who hates Wagner concedes that its some of the most highly structured and formally planed music ever. Chase would probably argue that Bach's Art of Fugue or preludes are tremendously intricate and engineered (i.e., structured), at the smallest shifts and largest movements -- better than anything else. And he'd be right!

In the same way, Beethoven's late quartet continually violate our expectations, to tremendous and exhilarating degree. But that does speak to a lack or an abandonment of structure.

jaltcoh said...

Peter, I know my metaphor is crude and overly simplistic, and that I'm conflating formal structure with the listener's subjective experience (though the two aren't entirely unrelated). I'm speaking very broadly about the whole history of music. That history is so incredibly complex that to boil it down to one metaphor is inevitably going to be simplistic. That's also not to say that my metaphor is the best; it's just my personal way of organizing the history in my head.

jaltcoh said...

Also, I don't think there has been "a lack or an abandonment of structure." Gregorian Chant and Arvo Part have structure, yet I put them at the ground level.

And again, there's no mathematical precision to my metaphor. The lower parts of the mountain might spike upward in places where there's more conventional dramatic form, but I still perceive a general slope downward.

Shanna said...

Inspirational but depressing, especially out of context from the story.

Didn't she sing Climb Every Mountain when Maria was getting married/talking to her about getting married (not during the Nazi part)? So, she's talking about climbing Captain Von Trapp. At least, that's how I took it.

Ann Althouse said...

"Didn't she sing Climb Every Mountain when Maria was getting married/talking to her about getting married (not during the Nazi part)? So, she's talking about climbing Captain Von Trapp. At least, that's how I took it."

I must admit, I have never seen the movie. I have seen the musical in the theater. I remember "Climb Every Mountain" reprised as the final song, as they are escaping from Hitler.

Shanna said...

You've never seen the movie? Ah.

I believe, although it's been a while since I saw it, that Climb Every Mountain is sung by the Reverend Mother when she runs away from Captain Von Trapp because she has realized she is in love with him. The Mother tells her she is hiding from love, or something, and then sings climb every mountain. It had nothing to do with Nazi's in the movie. (Now that I think about it, they sang "how do you solve a problem like maria" at the wedding, which I've always thought was awful :)

I saw that movie SO many times as a kid.

Roger J. said...

jaltcoh--no need to apologize for your metaphor--it tells me you have takien the time to think about what you believe and why--thats a good thing--as Captain Nathan Brittles would say--dont apologize--I wish more young people would think about the arts (in particular music) as you have demonstrated--well done.

Drew said...

I would have put Bach at the top of the mountain, but what do I know? I still think of Charles Ives as "difficult listening music."

rcocean said...

Women and Gays seem to love Babs. Frankly, I'd rather have bamboo shoots driven up my fingers than listen to another Streisand song. She is incapable of subtlety, she must make you aware at all times that the GREAT Babs is singing this song. And the original melody and lyrics be damned. Its always Babs sings Song X, never Song X song by Babs.

Hey, but if YOU like her, God Bless you.

rcocean said...

The Top Ten:

01) Beethoven
02) Mozart
03) Bach
04) Handel
05) Wagner
06) Brahms
07) Schubert
08) Verdi
09) Tchaikovsky
10) Schumann

gbarto said...

1. Mozart: A master. Original instrument recordings reveal a composer who knew exactly how the different instruments would balance and complement each other in the real world.
2. Bach - Partita 3, Conc. for 2 violins
3. Beethoven: Visionary. Wrote sonatas that the pianos of his day weren't big enough to play.
4. Brahms: Piano quintet
5. Vivaldi: Never wrote a concerto that wasn't lovely
6. Debussy - esp. for the Preludes
7. Schubert - Ninth Symphony
8. Shostakovich - Violin Conc. 1 & the string quartets
9. Messiaen - Quartet for the end of time, Vingt regards...
10. Tchaikovsky - even if he did write the Nutcracker