The Case for Greatness in Classical Music

As a child, I was essentially alone in my passion for music. No one in my extended family, as far as I knew, had sung in a chorus, played the guitar, anything. So the finished basement den of our house on Long Island was my private musical refuge, where I practiced the piano — a boxy old upright — and listened to classical records.

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Anthony Tommasini
, New York Times

As a child, I was essentially alone in my passion for music. No one in my extended family, as far as I knew, had sung in a chorus, played the guitar, anything. So the finished basement den of our house on Long Island was my private musical refuge, where I practiced the piano — a boxy old upright — and listened to classical records.

I must have been about 13 when I first heard a recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. About a year earlier, I had begun studying with a new piano teacher, Gladys Gehrig, an awesome woman in her late 60s. A Bach devotee, Gehrig had me learning several of his two-part inventions and my first prelude and fugue. One day she urged me to get to know Bach’s Mass, which she called the greatest masterpiece of all time. Her words made me eager to hear the piece, but also a little wary. It sounded intimidating. And the recording I found in a store — Herbert von Karajan’s weighty, full-orchestra version from 1952, on three LPs — certainly looked daunting.

I don’t remember the exact moment I put on Side One, but I remember vividly how the chorus’s three opening pleas of “Kyrie eleison,” each more intense in its desperation for attention, affected me. Today, after decades of experience with the piece, I still find the beginning of the “Kyrie” overwhelming. Whenever I hear Bach’s Mass, or his other incomparable works, I usually come away thinking that, for his matchless combination of technical mastery, ingenious musical engineering, profound expressivity, and, when so moved, unabashed boldness, Bach was the greatest composer in history.

Classical music has justifiably been criticized for its obsession with greatness, with certifying a repertory of canonical masterpieces that get played again and again. I, for one, go back and forth about how much this quality should matter, let alone how we should determine it.

Take, for example, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” This music is colossal, yet also audacious and unpredictable. On the surface the symphony’s four movements seem to come from different realms: a brisk, purposeful Allegro with a searching development section that climaxes midway in a gnashing burst of dissonant chords; a grimly imposing Funeral March; a breathless Scherzo at once godly and giddy; a romping, mischievous Finale that is somehow the ultimate statement of the heroic in music.

But the movements are linked, almost subliminally, by short musical motifs that run through almost every moment of this 50-minute score, lending it inexorable sweep and structural cohesion. Talk about greatness.

And yet when I was a child, my first favorite composer was Norwegian Edvard Grieg, who would not make many people’s top 10 lists. I had a recording I adored, “Rubinstein Plays Grieg.” The main work on the album, recorded in 1953, was Grieg’s Ballade for Piano (Op. 24), a 17-minute score in the form of variations on a bittersweet folk song. Some of the variations become quite tumultuous; the piece both hooked and baffled me.

I especially loved the short works Rubinstein played, selections from Grieg’s 10 volumes of Lyric Pieces: sprightly dances, songs without words that evoked wistful folk tunes, character pieces with evocative titles like “March of the Dwarfs” and “Little Bird.” My favorite was “Shepherd Boy,” with its achingly sad melody, a series of descending lyrical phrases that actually seem to sigh.

In the middle section, the melodic line goes through twists and generates agitation. The piece sounds not like the song of a shepherd boy, but like a musical depiction of his inner thoughts. At that young age, I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling about this short piece. In retrospect, I realize I must have wondered what made this Norwegian boy so sad. I could be a sad child, too, especially when, alone, I listened to recordings like this one and felt the music so deeply.

The case for denying Grieg greatness is easy. He was certainly no Beethoven when it came to ambitious musical forms. At 20, urged by a mentor, he wrote a symphony but soon withdrew it and never completed another. He came under pressure to compose a stirring Norwegian national opera and tried to do it, but got no further than some choral scenes and sketches. He wrote the wonderful, if modest, Lyric Pieces, some chamber works, a few volumes of elegant songs. His incidental music for Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” were fashioned into two popular orchestra suites. And there is, of course, his justly beloved Piano Concerto.

A great? No. Should that matter? Absolutely not.

Yet I’ve come to accept that I and other lovers of music, like lovers of any art form, can’t help being swept up in the search for, and identification of, greatness. Your first time hearing some exhilarating or mystifying work by a composer of the past — Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, Beethoven’s searching Fourth Piano Concerto, Wagner’s trance-inducing “Tristan und Isolde,” Stravinsky’s shattering “Rite of Spring,” take your pick — can be as formative a moment as anything in your life. These works, and the composers who wrote them, become living presences; it’s natural to acknowledge the place they hold for us, and to seek reassurance that the things we love are important to others, too.

My most brazen venture into grappling with greatness came in 2011, with my Top 10 Composers project, a two-week series of articles I wrote for The New York Times. The goal was to determine a list of the top 10 composers in history. Of course, the whole project was an intellectual game, though one played seriously by me and the more than 1,500 readers whose comments were posted during the two weeks.

Some of the most interesting reactions came from music-lovers who actually found the game harmful. Others, while dismissing the exercise as absurd, sent in their own top 10 lists, often with injunctions like “Don’t you dare leave out Mahler!” For me, the game was also a genuine exercise in trying to be precise about what makes a composer’s music great, about why a composer merits a place. The final list, as I emphasized, was not the point. The analysis involved in determining it was.

As a ground rule I omitted living composers from consideration, arguing that we are just too close to these creators to have enough perspective. I think that one of the most rewarding things about taking in music by living composers, as with new work in any artistic field, is that questions of the greatness of a piece, and predictions of its longevity, are irrelevant. If an exciting new novel comes along, literary-minded people want to read it, talk about it, maybe argue over it. But the question of whether the novelist is another Dickens or Proust is absurd. The same goes for new plays, new films, new pop groups, new television dramas.

In the end, I think of my job as bifurcated. I will always be unapologetically hooked by the reality that there is greatness in music. In my reviews and other stories, I try to explain, for example, why Schubert was absolutely great; why Debussy; why Wagner.

And yet it is just as much my duty to take in the music of our own time, and to help address the inequalities of the classical canon, which was historically reserved for white men only. Some of these imbalances are finally being righted. These days, easily half the composition majors in colleges and conservatories are women. Since 2010, four of the nine winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Music have been women; last year’s prize went to rapper Kendrick Lamar, for his album “DAMN.” Arbitrary divisions between classical contemporary music and myriad pop and jazz styles are falling away.

Where the composers of today will place in the pantheon seems irrelevant right now. We are too close to say and too immersed in the exciting newness of their music to care.

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