Sunday, January 9, 2011

Pecking order

Something to do while waiting to fill out bracket sheets for the NCAA basketball tournament . . .

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini sets out to list the top 10 composers of Western classical music, narrowing the time frame to "since the late Baroque" and narrowing eligibility to exclude those, such as Gershwin, whose works and reputations were not purely "classical."

Bach, it seems, gets a bye:

For the other nine, Tommasini will poll readers following a refresher course:

This looks like harmless fun; but it also could be a revealing glimpse at today's "elite" cultural values.

Some performance halls built in the late-19th and early 20th centuries – the old Lyric Opera House in Baltimore is an example in this region – are decorated with busts or gilded names of composers then considered the greats. A surprising number of those enshrined are largely forgotten today. (Heard any Meyerbeer lately?)

The tastemakers of classical music – music directors, impresarios, critics, academics, ultimately audiences – are fickle. Tastes evolve, sometimes devolve, and expectations of the musical experience can change significantly from one generation to the next.

Over the past 50 years, Mozart and Mahler have become pervasive; the reputation of Sibelius has risen, while that of Prokofiev has faded. Schubert is now better known for "Death and the Maiden" than for the "Unfinished" Symphony. Plus all those once rarely heard baroque and modern composers whose works are now staples of the concert hall and opera house.

I'll be looking to see whether Tommasini's readers select any 18th-century figure other than Bach and Mozart, any modern other than Stravinsky, any composer not from Germany, Austria, Italy, France or Russia. Bonus points or demerits for virtuoso instrumentation or theatricality?

Once he concludes this venture, Tommasini would do us all a favor by disclosing the top also-rans – say, Nos. 11-20. That list that could offer more insight than the top 10 about the music we hear and the music we miss.

POSTSCRIPT: Soho the Dog (aka Matthew Guerrieri) offers The Top Ten Composers That Will Never Appear Anywhere Near The New York Times' Top Ten Composers List:

CODA: Tommasini unveils his top 10. No real surprises, unless you count Verdi outranking Wagner:

Edgar Schenkman, the founding conductor of the Richmond Symphony, said some 50 years ago that the three most underrated composers were Handel, Haydn and Dvořák. Still true, it seems. None made Tommasini's cut.