In trying to decide what is great music – and whether such a thing exists – it is important to consider the genres of music that have dominated and defined their particular times. Genre might as well be, here, a substitute for context, or even for culture more broadly, and is therefore intimately tied in with taste, but it is nevertheless a useful way of categorizing an incredibly complicated phenomenon.
In any given era, there are seemingly uncountable genres and sub-genres of music. It is tempting and simple to simply divide music into two camps, “art” and “popular.” But that is a misleading attempt, because much of what we now consider “art music” was wildly popular at the time, and much music that is written primarily for the sake of a popular audience is nonetheless artistic for it.
Similarly, we might divide music into “spiritual” and “secular” music. While not a meaningful distinction in contemporary music, historically there is a significant difference between the purposes and forms of the two. Indeed, for a long time “spiritual music” and “art music” were essentially the same thing, with popular, secular (and thereby vulgar) music serving an entirely different function and performed by an entirely different set of musicians.
At the other extreme, we might choose to define genres of music narrowly. The minuet and the fugue might be separate, as might the 12-bar blues and the 16-bar blues, or the symphony and the concerto. A narrower understanding of genre might help us to compare pieces under those frameworks – and it strikes me that most reasonable narrow divisions are actually formal constraints – but they don't necessarily help us to find great music.
Perhaps the most common delineation of genres in music is the chronological one. That is, classical music is divided into distinct eras, each of which has a distinctive but related (by the “progress” from one understanding of harmony to the next) style. Beginning with the medieval era, Western music is traditionally said to have gone through the following eras (in order): Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. Some nit-pickers also slide Nationalist in between Romantic and Modern, or at least alongside, but that's of more political than musical interest.
While I don't think any of these approaches really properly captures what I mean by “genre,” I think they are useful nonetheless, especially when considered together.* A genre is, in short, the combination of the context in which the work was written (that is, its historical, geo-political, and philosophical situation) and the purpose for which it was written (that is, whether it was written for the sake of religion, art as such, popularity or notoriety, or what-have-you). The historical side of that equation is something a composer has essentially no control over, and if there is an argument for or against the existence of great music from a particular time period, it ought to therefore confront the context and the not the composers of that time.**
*I will avoid, for the time being, the thorny issue of modern music, because that is where 'genre' becomes especially uninformative in trying to qualify music. I promise, however, that I will have a whole post in this series specifically devoted to modern music.
** Indeed, we don't really speak of “Great Music” from the Dark Ages primarily for this reason; the social, political, and religious realities of the time made great music all but impossible. Of course, it is also possible that, rather than making great music impossible, context instead made the transmission of that music impossible. Likewise with the Greeks. We cannot evaluate their music – even though discussions of it abound in their writings – because none of it survived. Accessibility is a necessary condition for greatness, and music, after all, must be heard.
So the question becomes, what is greatness? Is it relative, or absolute? Does it even exist?
It seems to me that the simplest claim is that greatness is merely the sorting of music in a particular genre by quality, as is generally agreed upon by those most versed in the language of that genre,* with some help from popular opinion, and as confirmed by the experts who learn that language later and confirm the former judgment. I realize that's a fairly long-winded “simple” definition, but I think the components all make sense, and I'm inclined to use it moving forward. Because of that, I want to go through the definition in a little more detail, to make sure it is clear and to argue for each part.
* Those with the most taste, as we might say, drawing on my last post.
First off, this definition of greatness assumes that greatness is not Platonic, dealing with eternal forms, and rather is a relative measure of art against the other art from close to the same time. That is not to say we don't set up a non-contextual scale, comparing music from the 1800s to music from the 1600s, deciding that Bach is perhaps greater than Wagner, but that Wagner is greater than Vivaldi. Rather, it is to say that, before we compare Vivaldi or Bach to Wagner, we compare them to the other, lesser known composers of their own time, and we recognize that those “lesser knowns” are lesser known for good reason.*
* By way of analogy, there is endless debate amongst baseball fans as to who the greatest player of all time is. Babe Ruth still has a lot going for him because of how much better he was than his contemporaries, but then again Willie Mays faced what was probably a higher level of competition. Barry Bonds may have been a cheat, but he faced an even higher level of competition and managed – by whatever means – to life himself well above it. The point being, there's no way to really decide who's the best baseball player, but it is fairly widely acknowledged that, comparing Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds against their contemporaries, it's hard to say they were not great. Though undoubtedly Willie Bloomquist is an exceptional athlete and phenomenal baseball player by most any measure, he is “lesser known” for good reason when compared against Albert Pujols.
As for how the greatest composers of an era are decided, a great deal of that happens well before we modern folk ever had a say. Beethoven was anointed great and his music preserved because his contemporaries understood his music to be great. The same could be said of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and the myriad other household name Classical composers. This, however, is an important part of greatness; the recognition of the experts of the time.
While certainly Beethoven was helped by broader popularity, it was the favor of both his fellow musicians and of the more austere, academic critics of music which carried him. Of course there was also substantial negative reaction to much of what he wrote, and a good deal of misunderstanding, but that too we might label a condition for greatness. On the whole, however, it was widely recognized that Beethoven was incomparable among his contemporaries even at the time, a judgment that came from a combination of expert opinion and general enjoyment of the music he produced.
Retrospect, however, is also important in determining greatness. At the time, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was met with mixed and, frankly, a good many negative reviews. Beethoven was, in summary, an old, deaf man grasping at straws, full of grand ideas but no longer aware of how to really write music. In retrospect, however, it is Beethoven's contemporaries that were grasping at straws, unable to understand a treatment of harmony and form that was heretofore unheard, but that anticipated the evolutions in music theory that would occur over the next century during the Romantic era.
Only hindsight, it could be said, can judge whether the wild and crazy ideas of a great mind will be prophetic or insane. Perhaps it is no mark of greatness, and merely of fortune that in this case Beethoven was the former, but I believe that oversimplifies a complicated situation. An important quality of the prophet is not merely predicting the future, but helping to make that future happen. In Beethoven's case, his greatness was not in anticipating what Romantic music would bring to fruition, but in planting the seed such that his was the only flower that had any chance of growing in the first place.
It is easy to look at transition points between historical genres and find great composers, of course, because influence and greatness are easy to confound. While a great many changes may be inevitable – for example, the progress of music theory in its essence may have been almost exactly the same had Beethoven never been born – the way those changes occur is subject to the influences of a great many men and women, and some manage to have more influence than others.
Even within a fairly static genre, however, we might find greatness. Mozart, brilliant though he was, did not live long enough to see the transition from the Classical to the Romantic eras. While much of his music may have pushed the boundaries of what was common at his time – another potential mark of greatness – he did not possess nearly the influence that Beethoven did historically. And yet we might argue that Mozart was the greater composer. Regardless, that he stood out both now and then above his contemporaries is largely unquestioned.
It is almost inevitable that a discussion of great music will end up being a discussion of great composers, because individual pieces are even harder to categorize and qualify. Nevertheless, we might approach pieces the same way, but with a stronger eye towards the theory in each piece. There are a great many musical devices and techniques that underlie even this discussion of what a musical genre is, and while it is reductionist to discuss composers without that theory, it is at least possible. Discussing the music itself without the theory itself would be impossible, because music theory is the very language that allows for the discussion to have meaning.*
* Without music theory, it's easy to get trapped in the pitfall of unarguable metaphor. “This piece is like a waterfall, that one like a giant rock.” While those connotations and images may percolate in the heads of some listeners, trying to have a discussion and trying to determine quality under such terms is about as productive as teaching First Graders differential calculus. That's not to say the images and emotions that we feel aren't important; indeed, they are the point. But just because a piece of music (or anything else) makes you feel happy or helps you imagine daffodils doesn't mean that it is great. It must also stand up to analysis and contemplation. Some might argue this is a view that encourages cynicism, and I won't disagree. But I will say this: while a great deal of music might be beautiful, happy, melancholy, or any other number of things, only music that remains beautiful, happy, or melancholy when you are cynical about it is truly great. If you are afraid that thinking carefully and critically about a thing will decrease rather than increase your enjoyment of it, perhaps it is not a thing worth enjoying after all.
With that in mind, we'll spend the next post discussing music itself. What is music, after all? Music has undeniable power, and is ubiquitous in our culture. Indeed, the music industry has been at the forefront of copyright law and the effects of digital distribution primarily because we take our music much more seriously than we take our movies, our pictures, or our words. Why is that? What is the power of music? Tune in next time, but don't expect answers.