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Classical Mythology 101

3. The Myth of the Exclusionary Rule

Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Respighi and all the other populist types don't belong in the Pantheon with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms -- or Schubert, Schoenberg, Scelsi.

The subject here is greatness. What does it take to be great? Who's great? Who's not?

Every now and then, you'll see a well-meaning music critic dismiss a composer's value with some comment like, "Rachmaninoff's empty calories don't add up to the seriousness of Schoenberg" or "Stravinsky's music shook the world, but Ravel's was ear candy" or "Tchaikovsky couldn't develop genital herpes, much less develop a symphony as Brahms could." Whenever I see things like that, I like to mentally substitute the word "banana" for "Rachmaninoff" and "green beans" for "Schoenberg." Or "pear" and "pineapple."

You get the idea. It's one thing to prefer apples over oranges. It's entirely another matter to hold it against the orange that it isn't an apple. Yet that's precisely what critics do when they make judgements about history's greats. Some writers seem to feel that being an innovative and revolutionary creator is a necessary and sufficient condition for inclusion in the Pantheon. Others wrestle with the question of whether popularity is or isn't a basis for greatness and if it is, whether it's enough by itself. Or perhaps the real test is whether a composer exerted an influence on generations to come or instead represented the culmination of an artistic dead end.

All this agonizing ignores the fact that most of us would just as soon include both apples and oranges in our shopping carts. A litmus test for greatness that's limited to one singular quality is -- almost by definition -- an exclusionary rule. If we could rate composers on a one-dimensional scale like the Verbal S.A.T., a simple score of 800 would end the argument. But a better model for assessing value would be a psychological profile like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), where ratings are assigned to diverse categories like sexuality, introversion, honesty, depression and sociopathic tendency in order to develop a full picture of the disordered personality.

In fact, there exist various excellent diagnostic tools for assessing the qualities that determine greatness among composers of classical music. Below are some of my personal favorites. Try applying these tests to Bach, Chopin, Ives, Reger or any other composers you admire and see how they stack up against one another.


Multiphase Artistic Greatness Index Cruncher (MAGIC)

Assign a value from 0 to 10 in each category to arrive at the MAGIC numbers for artistic quality.

Craftsmanship ~ Does the composer consistently demonstrate high skill in matters of craft? This includes harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, thematic development, integration of the whole work.

Invention ~ Do individual pieces of music reflect strong imagination and an abundance of interesting ideas? This could involve melodic invention, creative use of harmony and instrumental textures, etc.

Innovation ~ Is the composer's style a significant or radical departure from styles and practices of past and present?

Popular Appeal ~ Does the composer's music exert an immediate magnetic attraction on a wide and diverse audience?

Endurance ~ Does the pull of the composer's music remain the same or grow with the passage of time, especially long periods of time (e.g., generations)?

Representation ~ Is the composer's music representative or definitive of the time and place in which it was created?

Influence ~ To what extent did the composer influence immediate peers and composers who followed later in history?

Productivity ~ Is the composer a one-hit wonder or has he/she written lots of popular, enduring, inventive, influential, craftsmanlike works of art?


Social Nescience Objectivity Test (SNOT)

Accumulate values in each category (between 1 and 10) to determine the SNOT factor.

Prolixity ~ Does the composer's work lend itself to voluminous theoretical analyses?

Repulsion ~ To what degree is the composer's name a turn off when it comes up at dinner parties?

Recognition ~ Is the composer's name immediately unrecognizable to the lay person? (Low recognition level equals high score).

Universality ~ Is the style or period of the composer's music widely unpopular?

Syllabication ~ Does the composer have a long or difficult name? Examples: Buxtehude or Einojuhani Rautavaara

Necrology ~ Has death significantly raised the composer's status? Example: Some people now consider Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi among the giants, this despite the fact that no one knew the man existed when he was alive.


Categoric Listener Understanding Evaluation (CLUE)

Apply values (0 for no, 1 for yes) to each question to see if you can get a CLUE.

Malleability ~ Did Mantovani arrange the composer's music for 101 Strings?

Malletability ~ Does Evelyn Glennie play the composer's music on percussion instruments?

Classical Standard ~ Does Zamphir play the composer's music on pan pipes?

Gold Standard ~ Does James Galway play the composer's music on solo flute?

Platinum Standard ~ Has the composer's music ever reached the Billboard 100 chart?

Animation ~ Has the composer's music been featured in a Looney Toon?

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: May 23, 2000