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.