Top 10 Fever

Lisa Hirsch has called New York Times concert music critic Anthony Tommasini’s Top 10 Greatest Composers of (Almost) All Time project a “fool’s errand”. I’m inclined to agree, especially when I remember that the Fool is often the wisest character in the drama. The internet was invented just so that people could make lists like this; the more impossible, the more foolish, the better.

I think there can be a good deal of value to this particular exercise, as long as one keeps it in perspective, as I think Mr. Tommasini is doing. The value comes in having the conversation—after all, getting concert music back in the cultural conversation is one of the reasons many of us blog in the first place. The comments sections under each of the entries in the series are lively and engaging. People are talking.

Mr. Tommasini’s posts are (I can say “are” with confidence, because he has said as much himself) designed to expose people to composers they may not be familiar with, to try to explain why certain composers are held in the esteem they are (and the limits of that esteem), and to get listeners to think about why they enjoy the music they do. It’s this last that’s inspired me to make my own list—a list of the ten most-cited reasons for declaring a composer “great”. My criteria for making this meta-list are simple: they are criteria I’ve read or heard and one I’ve thought of myself. The rationale behind the ranking of the criteria is simple. The ones that interest me more are higher than the ones that don’t mean much to me. Here they are, in ascending order, to heighten the suspense:

10. Popularity. Just because a lot of people like a composer, it doesn’t mean they are really good. Of course, they might like the composer because the music is good, but they might also like the music because it reminds them of something that happened to them once, or it may just make them feel good about themselves.

9. Personal Preference. The best composers are the ones I like the most. Duh. Naturally, this whole process involves a certain (ok, large) amount of subjectivity, but this criterion is totally subjective, and shows an inability on the part of the list-maker to get outside himself, and if the list-maker cannot name his or her criteria, this is probably it (combined in #7).

8. Durability. The Test of Time! My problem with this one is that it decisively privileges the past over the present. I understand why Mr. Tommasini held living composers out of the running for his list, what with the need for critical distance and everything, but it really does perpetuate the idea that the past is always better. Come on, T-Dog, give it a shot! You’ve heard a tremendous amount of new music. Tell us what you think might make it. (The flip side of this [privileging the relatively recent past over the more distant past by making Late Baroque the earliest music allowed] is just as bad. Monteverdi rules!)

7. Received Wisdom/Consensus. This is really just a more educated version of popularity, isn’t it? The peer pressure that exists in elite opinion-making and scholarship is very powerful, and I think that comes into play when writers say “Well of course, X, Y, and Z are the top three. The discussion is about who comes next.”

6. Influence. Now we’re getting close to talking about music. I think using influence as a criteria for greatness appeals more to composers than to others. It’s an important factor in discussing a composer, and goes a long way towards making someone a “composer’s composer”, but it’s still a bit outside of “purely” musical considerations.

5. Variety. This is about how many different “voices” a composer has over the course of his or her career. Not necessarily style changes, but they certainly count. Some listeners (I’m including everybody in the music’s community of interest in this) will value how consistent a composer remains throughout the career, of course, but others admire a composer who changes manner or style more than once over the course of a creative life, yet the individual voice of that composer still comes through.

4. Innovation/Originality. This one can be slippery, as some listeners love a composer whose work seems to change the wider musical world with new techniques, new textures, new harmonies, forms, etc. Others like composers whose work brings to fulfillment all of the ideas in the air during the composer’s career. Originality for its own sake (this gets mentioned a lot, but I don’t know of any examples) would seem empty, but it’s hard to overrate hearing something we’ve never heard before.

3. Masterwork Critical Mass (M/C/M). When a composer has x number of works in the conversation for the best example of y number of genres, they are probably pretty great. In other words, if you’ve written (for instance) two string quartets that are at the top of the list, a symphony or two with the same reputation, an opera, songcycle, etc., you’re doing very well for yourself.

1. Tie! Breadth and Depth. By breadth I mean a mastery of a wide variety of media and genre, This goes beyond M/C/M in that the composer under discussion has important/major/great works in a fairly large number of genres. Depth appears when a composer has created an important body of works in a single genre, and if they’ve done that in more than one genre, they’re on a fast track to greatness.

Bonus Track: My favorite note is the F natural above middle C. My love for this sublime frequency (349.2Hz, midi key 65, F4, f’) may have grown from its being the first note I could really make sound good on trombone. So, anybody who can hit that note hard, really rock that shit, is aces in my book.


Falling, Gently

Listen to This, by Alex Ross. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010. 364 pages.

BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas (Complete). Stefan Jackiw, violin; Max Levinson, piano. Sony S70397C/88697637692. 71 minutes.

There’s a brief passage near the end of the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (d minor, Op. 108, 1887) that crystallizes for me why I’m drawn to his music.

Brahms’ melodies frequently are made of short, sharply-characterized motives that are pregnant with developmental possibilities. In this passage, the violin focuses on a short motive that, in its first appearance (Figure 1), emphasizes the two most important pitches in a piece in D (major or minor)—D itself (the home, or “tonic” pitch) and A (the “dominant” to D, the pitch that most supports the “D”-ness of a piece in D).

Figure 1

This motive (and melodic lines derived from it or related to it) characterizes the entire movement, through repetition, development, and by implication, in both the violin and piano parts. At the end of the movement, (beginning in the fifth measure of Figure 2) the violin plays the motive in three different octaves, each time lower than the previous one. Because the repetitions overlap (see for example the first measure of the second system in Figure 2) the impression is of a falling, a slow motion tumble, towards the conclusion of the movement, which ends with the violin on its lowest A natural.

Figure 2

This kind of gentle falling is an important aspect of Brahms’ art. So is the clever technique involved in the tumbling, with the overlapping playing of the motive in different octaves. This particular combination of expression and technique, almost a tension between the two, is central to the art of concert music.

In the concluding essay of Listen to This (“Blessed Are the Sad”), Alex Ross argues that this melancholy (which is not limited to the composer’s late works, which are often celebrated for their autumnal atmosphere) is an identifying characteristic of Brahms’ music, and it seems to me that he is on to something. Brahms believed he was at the end of a line of concert music (Ross relates an anecdote about Mahler refuting this idea in a conversation with Brahms) and his music has a summing-up quality, and the melancholy cast to so much of his music is in line with this feeling.

Not so incidentally, the motive discussed above has a good bit in common with the bass line Ross devotes an entire essay to in Listen to This ("Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues"). This lamento bass line informs, as Ross richly illustrates, an astonishing variety of music throughout history. While the motive is not used as a bass line in this Sonata, it does fill in the musical space between D and the A below it, as does the lamento bass. And it surely does fall.

Stefan Jankiw’s debut CD (with pianist Max Levinson) is a recording of all three Brahms Sonatas. He and Levinson have very clearly studied and lived with these pieces for a long time—their reading of these mature, searching pieces (all three sonatas are relatively late works) is assured and expressive. The recording evinces a thorough understanding of Brahms’ particular sadness (what the novelist Walker Percy once referred to as a “sweet, rinsing sadness”) and an ability to transmit that understanding through performance.

One could do much worse of a midwinter’s evening than spend it with Ross’ book and Jankiv’s and Levinson’s Brahms.