The website of the New York Times looks a bit like the American Idol comment boards these days, with everyone offering their two cents about the merits of Chopin over Stravinsky, Wagner over Verdi. A certain music critic has taken it upon himself to rank the top ten "greatest" composers, and his self-appointed task has unnecessarily riled up countless music fans. I appreciate the enthusiasm the articles have generated, but I fear the results. It seems to me that a society so obsessed with competition is turning music into a science... a society filled with overbearing sages is predetermining what experiences we should and shouldn't enjoy... a society that has fine-tuned its ability to listen critically is becoming unable to listen aesthetically. (For Liz and my take on "aesthetic" listening, please see our Music Listening Manifesto.)
I take issue with labeling music "great," as if music is some sort of artifact that belongs in a museum. Why should "greatness" be the ultimate goal of classical music? Is Schubert's B-flat Sonata nothing but a pristine, untouchable chapel for worship? Or is it a warm, pulsating, living being with a heart that connects to humans today? Do we not approach Schubert's music with the same mirthful, reckless merriment as the Schubert who played music with his friends? Or do we dissect his music in a scientific study and merely comment on its perfection? Yes, I want to be elevated by great craft in music, but there is so much more I long for in addition: simple joys, compassion when I'm sad, feckless laughs, a good cry, midnight snacks, and the feeling I get when I rest my head on my pillow after a really long day.
A good music listening experience is intensely personal. No single person can tell you when a piece of music will change your life -- it just happens. Who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to belittle a listener who finds supreme joy in Saint-Saëns' piano concertos, an opera by Puccini, a small piano piece by Mendelssohn, or a song by Simon and Garfunkle. As Liz and I say in our music listening manifesto, "Music is not universal. It is a myth to believe that there is one 'correct' way to respond to a musical experience. Human beings are too sophisticated and music is too subtle to be whittled down in this manner."
I encourage people to define their own list of favorites. I happen to find Poulenc's Tel jour, telle nuit to be among the most incredible music ever composed. I'm overwhelmed by the imagination in the writing, the strange flow of harmonies, and the intensity of feeling. It makes my heart burn. But this is my personal opinion; it doesn't matter if others find it to be a waste of time, and it certainly doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the piece if someone would rather listen to a Mozart sonata or a Lady Gaga song. To tell the truth, at times I'm not even in the mood for Tel jour, telle nuit, and there's nothing wrong with that either.
Had the New York Times critic listed his ten favorite composers, I would have read his list with eager curiosity. But I find a roomful of people discussing the greatest composers to be a tad bit "stuffy," as the larger public likes to say. There are absolutes in the world of sports ("The top 10 golfers in the world") and there are incontrovertible rankings elsewhere ("The top 10 cities with the highest abortion rates"), but it is a disservice to music to attempt to list the top 10 composers. In the world of music listening, our personal experiences define our relationship with the music, not the greatness of the composer.