Casual Musings on Top 10s and Greatness

By Alan Gilbert

I have followed Anthony Tommasini’s recent series in The New York Times on the Top 10 composers with great interest, both because I was curious about what the final list would be, and also because it is reminiscent of one of my favorite parlor games that I have played for years with my fellow “muzoids” (with thanks to Tom Morris for the term). Our rules are slightly different, however: we always limit ourselves to the Top Five, and we work with the premise that each time we return to the exercise, we have to introduce to the list at least one different composer. I like this fluid approach to something that, on at least a superficial level, sounds dogmatic. What becomes important in coming up with a new pantheon each time is an enthusiasm for music itself and, further, for the different criteria we use to measure greatness.

After all, what is “greatness”? I have often allowed myself a non-rigorous definition, i.e., “you know it when you see it.” Admittedly, this immediately presents problems, since it relies on recognition as the determining factor, and throughout the history of music, how many composers can we think of who were not considered to be great until many years had passed? Does this mean that their music was not “great” until long after it was written?

Perhaps time is an important element, though. Many would say that the ability to withstand the test of time is an essential aspect of great art. Further, I guess that I believe that great art often does have the capacity to speak across generations and cultural differences.

I recently spoke about this subject with my good friend Marc Neikrug and, interestingly, he identified the attribute of profound ambition as being necessary for a composer to be truly great. He meant that great composers all share the desire and capacity to say something deep and important about our humanity. Beethoven had this most Shakespearean quality more than any other composer — every note he wrote was infused with an illuminating aspect. Delibes was less great than, say, Debussy, because his music doesn’t achieve or even aspire to true profundity.

I realize that, philosophically, these musings may carry very little weight, but they have been occupying my mind, and I thought I would share them.

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