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That article was terrible. I think that the underlying reasons that we always identify a handful of German composers as the greatest needs to be examined, but this article does a poor job of it.

The assumptions:
#1. Wrong. We instead assume that composers can be measured in a way similar to artists and literary figures.
#2. Obviously when people ask the question they mean classical composers not John Denver. Renaissance and early baroque era composers are not usually included due to unfamiliarity. But I think anyone familiar with classical music would describe Monteverdi as one of the most influential composers who ever lived despite not being a symphonist.
#3. That's not an assumption, that is a fact. Clara Schumann is no Robert Schumann nor no Brahms. Sorry. If they were freely allowed to follow careers as their male counterparts that might be different, but that was not the reality of the past.
#4. Disagree. I call Stravinsky and Shostakovich great composers, I don't call them great Russian composers. And I don't know anyone that does.
#5. The question who is the greatest composer pre-supposes that we are discussing classical music. That's not to shun other genres, it's just the nature of the question.
#6. A great composer has to pass the test of time. It is necessary and not a frivolous assumption.
#7. Yeah so what? How can music be truly great if it doesn't have universal appeal? I think this is just an academic wanting to name atonal music that has very limited appeal as the greatest.
#8. NO. A greatest composer has to be one that has influenced a great many of COMPOSERS PERIOD. Regardless of nationality. And Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms have all done that.
#9. If the inquirer asked the question, why would they presuppose the answer?
#10. Oh shut up.

She then goes on to underline posts that contain valid reasons for choosing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as the greatest. That is silly. If you caught posters not able to articulate clear reasons for their choice that is one thing, well reasoned choices with supporting evidence that most agree on is completely different.

There is a place for discussing truly if we are correctly identifying the most influential composers, but that blog post absolutely does not do it.
 

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My problem with Sarah Denes' approach and with all approaches attempting to define and measure greatness, or good and bad in the arts, is the total lack of measurable, quantifiable criteria. Over many years of pondering this issue, I conclude that I know only what pleases me more, what less. What one can say about a particular work is whether it is accurately described as to creator, history, genre, etc. Almost all that passes for serious discussion about the arts is merely opinion. After Pompey assumed the title of Magnus--Great--as part of his name, his rival Crassus remarked pointedly, "Great in relation to what?" Even J. Robert Oppenheimer, a profoundly well-educated aesthete if ever there was one, himself fell into tautology--in a letter to his brother Frank, Oppenheimer wrote that the best art was that thought best by the most educated, perceptive, and refined members of society. Talk about a circular argument!

No, it won't do. We must abandon the notion that there are some sort of standards out there in the ether that will allow us to decide "objectively" what is good, better, best, or their opposites, in the arts. I can tell you, though, with perfect accuracy, the dozen or so Rock songs that give me chills 'n' thrills; also what moments or pieces or pictures or whatever that give me pleasure--and why, often--in any of the arts. And I've found it best to say to others who wonder how it is that I cannot possibly like their particular enthusiasm, that "Sorry, but I am not the audience for whom that piece was created and to whom it is addressed."

But maybe I am terribly wrong. I await evidence, suited to the meanest understanding, that there are objective criteria for determining good and bad, right and wrong, greatness or worthlessness, in the arts.
 
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But maybe I am terribly wrong. I await evidence, suited to the meanest understanding, that there are objective criteria for determining good and bad, right and wrong, greatness or worthlessness, in the arts.
I'm not convinced that such criteria can be described either...but they might nevertheless exist.

Compare Mozart's 1st Symphony with his 41st. Or Sibelius' 1st with his 7th. Or Beethoven's 1st with his 9th? Are they equal in "quality"? If they are, do none of their symphonies rise above the others? If they aren't, what is it that makes the differences?

I don't think 'greatness' is a term that can be so readily applied to things compared across centuries (Mozart with Sibelius), but I think 'better' (and 'worse') can be applied to things compared within more narrow confines; that is, between things that have strong commonalities in the first place.
 

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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).
 

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My biggest problem with the "greatest" discussions has always been that I can't figure out what purpose they serve. For the most part, it seems to me that people get a thrill out of seeing their own opinions seconded by others (and, conversely, they are disappointed when their own favorite doesn't make the cut).

I suppose it is possible for a skilled academic to ferret out which composer was more masterful in one or another area of composition. And, it might be possible to assess which composers had more of an influence on their contemporaries and successors. But, none of those things change one's personal reactions to the music one hears.

Strange Magic referred to "thrills and chills", and I agree that it is easy for me to identify the music that, at one time or other, gave me those. And, even after forty-plus years of listening, there are still a few pieces that invariably get to me. I think of those things as "heart music". There's no right or wrong here. If something moves us personally, it just does. The composer's chachet has nothing to do with it. And, conversely, if it doesn't move us, it doesn't. The fact that the particular composer who created it is generally acknowledged to be great changes nothing.

When I first started listening, almost half of what I heard was "heart" music. Sadly, that proportion has gone way down in my older age. These days, I don't expect to be moved by what I hear. It's kind of an unexpected joy when it happens.

I'm happy now with "ear" music - stuff that sounds good. Recommendations from others introduce me to a lot of this kind of music.

I even listen to a lot of "brain" music. It satisfies my curiosity, but it's more music as mathematics. It doesn't move me, and sometimes it doesn't even sound that good. A little cold, maybe, but interesting in the way a puzzle can be interesting. For me, a lot of the "great" composers wrote a considerable amount of "brain" music.

But, that's just me - one person's music for the brain can easily be another person's music for the heart. I'm okay with that. Sometimes I wish everyone was.
 

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Vesteralen, your reference to "heart" music, thrills 'n' chills music, reminds me that here the body speaks directly to us, without equivocation, about our musical preferences. There has been, and continues to be, much research probing the phenomenon of "skin orgasms", chills, etc. induced by music, film, passages in literature, all having to do with the limbic system, and deep-seated response mechanisms triggered by inherited perceived cries of our young, or the utterances of beasts foretelling of danger. As an aside, I note that in Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli tale, Red Dog, Kipling's reference to the Pheeal of the jackal "that rose and sank and wavered and quivered far away across the Wainganga. The Four began to bristle and growl" itself gives me goosebumps while describing its effects upon the creatures of Mowgli's jungle.

As luck would have it, I continue to occasionally find works, now mostly in Rock and some Pop, that induce thrills, but it has been a while since a classical piece new to me has similarly affected me. The old standbys that did chill me, though, still do. One example only: the whirlwind coda of the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto. While I agree that the purpose of most lists is to have the pleasure of being agreed with, it may be useful to exchange lists of chill-inducing music because we are dealing here with a yes/no phenomenon that has a basis in physiology and neurology. Perhaps some common traits will be revealed. I did read, though, that some studies have shown that perhaps only about 50% of the population reports experiencing musical chills. An interesting topic.
 

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I did read, though, that some studies have shown that perhaps only about 50% of the population reports experiencing musical chills. An interesting topic.
That's amazing, if it's true. I would have thought that was a universal trait. It might go a long way toward explaining why some people refuse to discuss the topic. If one has never experienced chills when listening to music, it must seem pretty bizarre when another person refers to it.

I could list dozens of works of classical music that, at one time or another, have given me chills. Sadly, that intense feeling does seem to diminish a bit over time and with repeated listening, in most cases.

One piece of music that never fails to give me goosebumps is Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras from Brahms' German Requiem. That's one I always like to listen to when I'm alone, because the visible effects on me (tears in the eyes) can be embarrassing in a room full of people.

The experience when listening to certain rock music is similar, more frequent, but a little less intense. Yes' "Turn of the Century" has often produced a similar effect on me, for example.

Embarrassing as it might be to get those feelings when with other people, I don't find it embarrassing to admit that it happens after the fact. For me, it's what really makes music great (in a personal way).
 

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http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4107937/

Herewith a learned article on chills, etc. My own notion about the triggering mechanisms is that there are several that can do the job. First is the link with a "cusp" experience, wherein one has been rushed along with increasing rapidity toward a sensed cusp, the cusp is reached, one totters there for a microsecond or even a second, then is rushed over the edge into a new world. A second trigger is a powerful sense of pathos, of plangency, where there is a sense of direct confrontation with another's grief. A third is a sense of mad joy as one is swept up in the ongoing rush of the music (though this may be closely allied with the cusp trigger). Yet another is a trance state induced by the music, usually through ostinato effects and, in my case, sometimes a sinuous, ophidian quality to the music. In the sci fi novel Dune, the author tells us about the drug and music-induced trance state of semuta. Certain rhythms can induce the same effect.
 

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My problem with Sarah Denes' approach and with all approaches attempting to define and measure greatness, or good and bad in the arts, is the total lack of measurable, quantifiable criteria. Over many years of pondering this issue, I conclude that I know only what pleases me more, what less. etc
I wonder whether you may have misinterpreted Sarah Denes' article referred to in the OP.

You seem to think that she was attempting to define and measure greatness among composers so that they may be ranked objectively.

On the contrary, my interpretation is that she was arguing that can be no certainty about who are the greatest composers as it depends on various factors such as the quality of the music, the number of such works by each composer, and the extent to which their work inspired other composers.

In her opinion there are hundreds of other composers, some of whom are much less well known than the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, who are of equal calibre to these normally recognised titans.

Importantly, she specifically recognised that there is no scientific way of measuring musical quality, as this assessment depends on one's own personal view. Therefore it is not possible to derive objectively determined ranks among composers. This is what you believe, isn't it?
 

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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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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.
 

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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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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
 
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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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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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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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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.
 
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