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Thread: Classical Music Critic on "Who is the greatest composer?"

  1. #31
    Senior Member Strange Magic's Avatar
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    Genoveva, I will meet you halfway. While Denes does not attempt to overtly define and measure greatness, she does spell out three criteria: First, "quality" of the music; that is left to your intuition. Second, production of much "quality" music. How much is much? Third, influencing other composers (more than one? How about influencing other composers that nobody ever heard of?). I think that by setting out these criteria, Denes is tacitly sinking calf-deep into the goo she wants others to break free of.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Magic View Post
    Genoveva, I will meet you halfway. While Denes does not attempt to overtly define and measure greatness, she does spell out three criteria: First, "quality" of the music; that is left to your intuition. Second, production of much "quality" music. How much is much? Third, influencing other composers (more than one? How about influencing other composers that nobody ever heard of?). I think that by setting out these criteria, Denes is tacitly sinking calf-deep into the goo she wants others to break free of.
    I don't agree with you.

    i. She states "quality" as the first consideration in judging the worth of a piece of music, and she stresses that this is not measurable objectively. The implication is that it's entirely a personal assessment.

    ii. She next refers to the "quantity" of (high) quality works by each candidate composer. But this reference to quantity doesn't change the personal nature of the assessment, rather it strengthens it.

    iii. Thirdly, she refers to "influence" upon other composers. She does not suggest that there is any objective way of measuring it, so it too is presumably a factor to be assessed on a personal basis, although we are given no clear advice on how this might be done, as it was not an issue she seemed prepared to follow up in detail.

    The whole thrust and rationale of her blog is that there are no sensible objective criteria for ranking composers. Therefore people should try to unshackle themselves from the generally perceived wisdom concerning the supremacy of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, and become like her in recognising a comparable level of genius among a host of other composers who are normally viewed in a less august light.
    Last edited by Genoveva; Oct-05-2015 at 19:15.

  3. #33
    Senior Member Strange Magic's Avatar
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    I don't get it. If she has broken the shackles of a postulated objectivity in determining this or that, good v. bad, whatever, then what is all this talk about quality, quantity, influence? We infer that Denes says these are all totally subjective; why not just say: It doesn't matter; it's all subjective. One spin might be that she is saying: Even though it doesn't matter, you ought to consider the criteria of quality, quantity (of quality works), and influence when you think about grading composers in your own mind; don't think about their morals, their hygiene, their appearance, etc. But I think people like what they like, dislike what they dislike, and only later (some) come up with "reasons" for their choices.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Magic View Post
    I don't get it. If she has broken the shackles of a postulated objectivity in determining this or that, good v. bad, whatever, then what is all this talk about quality, quantity, influence? We infer that Denes says these are all totally subjective; why not just say: It doesn't matter; it's all subjective. One spin might be that she is saying: Even though it doesn't matter, you ought to consider the criteria of quality, quantity (of quality works), and influence when you think about grading composers in your own mind; don't think about their morals, their hygiene, their appearance, etc. But I think people like what they like, dislike what they dislike, and only later (some) come up with "reasons" for their choices.
    I agree that it's a badly written blog. She goes around the houses, raising all manner of dubiously relevant issues, simply to make her main point that she doesn't go along with the widely held notion that Beethoven, Mozart, Bach were the "greatest" composers based on notions of objectively determined merit. On her reckoning, there are many composers of equal "caliber" [sic], namely the ones she happens to like. She reckons that she is entitled to this view because, according to her, there are no objective objective criteria that may be used to prove that any one composer is better than any other. It's all matter of personal choice based mainly on the individual listener's perception of the quality of the music, and how much they produced, etc

  5. #35
    Senior Member MacLeod's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Magic View Post
    My answer must seem simple in the extreme, but the difference among/between the symphonies mentioned (and, by extension, all other symphonies) is that they are not the same. Some are longer, some shorter. They have different notes in different patterns. Some may be thought to show "youthful energy", others, the result of years of increasing craft. I happen to prefer Sibelius' Symphony #1--the dash and brio of its stirring opening bars ring in my ears as I type this--but that's just me. And I would take a red pencil to some of Beethoven's 9th; IMO the man, genius though he might be, now and again didn't know when to stop--others have made this observation over the decades. I'd much rather hear Prokofiev's First Piano Concert than his last. Many will find my views difficult, but, Here I Stand (until something more convincing turns up).
    The fact that you can offer opinions about these composers that may contradict others' views does not invalidate the possibility that there may be valid criteria that go beyond taste and preference. The issue is whether they can be applied in any particular case, not whether they can be invalidated by finding exceptions. Besides, the fact that you want to improve Beethoven's 9th suggests you have some criteria in mind by which you judge its shortcomings.

    As for the idea that "it's all subjective", I think there would still be a requirement to explain why some pieces by some composers have acquired a subjective view held by a lot of people that the music is very good. I don't buy the proposition that Mozart and Beethoven's reputations are solely received through cultural transmission ("Everyone has always said they are great, so they must be").

    I'm not interested in 'greatest' or in ranking, but in considering whether there are any criteria that could be applied in certain limited circumstances. If, for example, I were to write a composition in the classical/early romantic style that is manifestly juvenile - not least because I have only a rudimentary understanding of musical notation, never mind composition - there are a number of criteria that could reasonably be used to show why it is demonstrably inferior to Beethoven's 9th.
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  6. #36
    Senior Member Strange Magic's Avatar
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    MacLeod, part of me wants to agree with you that there must be some criteria to separate sheep from goats, other than articulating accurately the name of the piece, its composer, date, genre, other such data. But i can't think of what criteria will tell me whether A is "better" than B that is not merely an opinion. I would be interested in your suggestions, if your hunch is that there might be such an elusive goal.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Genoveva View Post
    On her reckoning, there are many composers of equal "caliber" [sic], namely the ones she happens to like.
    It's the American spelling.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Magic View Post
    MacLeod, part of me wants to agree with you that there must be some criteria to separate sheep from goats, other than articulating accurately the name of the piece, its composer, date, genre, other such data. But i can't think of what criteria will tell me whether A is "better" than B that is not merely an opinion. I would be interested in your suggestions, if your hunch is that there might be such an elusive goal.

    Markets place monetary values every day on some types of works of art, like paintings and sculpture, through auctions etc. The resulting monetary values surely tell us something about the objective quality of these works, when judged against each other.

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    Senior Member MacLeod's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Magic View Post
    MacLeod, part of me wants to agree with you that there must be some criteria to separate sheep from goats, other than articulating accurately the name of the piece, its composer, date, genre, other such data. But i can't think of what criteria will tell me whether A is "better" than B that is not merely an opinion. I would be interested in your suggestions, if your hunch is that there might be such an elusive goal.
    Who says I've got suggestions? I'm merely observing a set of phenomena and speculating that they are not the result of random causes. The last time I offered criteria for such things they were not well-liked. I find too many members here are fond of either extreme - everything is relative/subjective ("Biber is every bit as good as Bach") or everything is absolute ("Mozart is objectively the greatest composer who ever lived") - which leaves those who think there's something going on that can't be dismissed by either polarity somewhat defensive.
    "I left TC for a hiatus, but since no-one noticed my absence, I came back again."

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    Senior Member Art Rock's Avatar
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    IMO, for each individual the appreciation of each composer is relative/subjective. Taking a group of classical music lovers (optionally through the ages) one can derive an average appreciation for composers that appears to be objective, but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
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  13. #42
    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Art Rock View Post
    ...but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
    I tend to agree with you, but... Year after year, in group after group, the "big three" remain the big three. What, then, does it mean?


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    Senior Member Art Rock's Avatar
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    Just that on average more people prefer their music (within the subset of classical music listeners) than that of other composers. If you want to define that as best or greatest, you can. But I don't think it is an objective criterion.
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    Senior Member MacLeod's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Art Rock View Post
    IMO, for each individual the appreciation of each composer is relative/subjective. Taking a group of classical music lovers (optionally through the ages) one can derive an average appreciation for composers that appears to be objective, but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
    You're right that it does not mean their music is 'objectively' better than the rest - and yet there is a 'subjective consensus'. So what is it that the big three have in common that causes this phenomenon? It can't just be coincidence. You might expect a much wider range of composers to come top of the polls if our tastes were all different and the appeal of composers merely subjective - yet this does not happen.
    "I left TC for a hiatus, but since no-one noticed my absence, I came back again."

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    I don't see why the sum of individuals' preferences regarding composers can't be regarded as an objective criterion, especially when those preferences tend to be repeated by different groups of individuals over time.

    In the world of paintings, if one painting sells for $500,000 and another at $250 at the same public auction, I'm prepared to accept that this proves that the more expensive one is of higher quality in objective terms than the other. It's not a question of personal taste.

    It's much the same principle with other forms of art, that the market can usually provide an objective measure of an item's worth relative to others, whether it's by auction or by popular vote.

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