We have had, in American culture, for some time, a rage for ordinality. Ranking things in order of importance has become a national tic, an obsession. And the end of the year is the time for end of the year lists of the top 10 in everything. I am not sure why or when this particular practice started. Did the Romans make lists of their 10 favorite gladiators? The rabbis make a list of their ten favorite biblical passages? I guess part of the fascination is trying to determine what, or who, is #1, and ersatz voting, like American Idol, often seems more genuine than real elections, which have more than their share of ersatz.
All of these comments are prompted by a fascinating series of articles by Anthony Tomassini in the Times on the top ten classical composers of all time, a subject close to my heart. Of course, it’s a useless and pointless exercise, but it does make you think about those who are truly great, and their wonderful music. I basically agree with Tomasinni’s list, which if I remember goes, Bach Beethoven Mozart Schubert Debussy Stravinsky Brahms Verdi Wagner Bartok. I would only drop Debussy and Bartok from that list, and probably add Shostakovich and Messiaen. And I would drop Bach to about sixth (making Beethoven my #1 pick (tell Tchaikovsky the news), followed by the four greatest composers of vocal music of all time--Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and Wagner-- but our sensibilities are pretty congruent, and like Tomassinni I would insist on placing opera composers on the list. (I’m not sure Bartok would make my top 20. If I had to pick a Hungarian composer, I would go for Liszt or Ligeti before Bartok, and I would pick Ravel before Debussy.)
Its a strange exercise, sort of like picking nine people for the Supreme Court—there really aren’t enough slots for representativeness, but at the same time you need some sort of mix, whites blacks women men Jews Catholics Protestants, to keep your selections from becoming too homogeneous. So you need some 20th century composers, and there is a strong case for going before Bach (Monteverdi, Josquin) to round off the list. But there is the inevitable crowding. Like Tomassini I have long marveled at the remarkable situation that one smallish city, Vienna, from about 1775 to 1830, produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, four exceptionally strong candidates for the top ten, and like him, I mourn the passing over of Haydn in the interests of representativeness. And if you’re serious about this, and you don’t make quirky picks, you are more or less forced to end up with a short list more or less like everyone else’s.
Well if anyone wants to play this game with me, I am ready to entertain suggestions. Chopin? Purcell? Dvorak? Tchaikovsky? Schoenberg, Berg or Webern? But I am more interested in thoughts about why our culture has such a rage for ordinality, and what it says about us.