Friday, January 28, 2011

Tommasini’s Top Ten Turns Tastes Topsy Turvy

The past week has reminded me of something I should try not to forget: academics and the broader culture don’t mix very well. Ideally, this should be a good thing, since people with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge can impart depth to any topic and encourage people to stop thinking within their familiar boxes. Problems arise when being an academic becomes its own kind of box.

This became evident when, a week ago today, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times published a list of what he considered the top ten classical composers of all time.

I have often had pleasant conversations with people who, knowing I am a musicologist, ask me to name my favorite composer(s), piece(s) and/or performer(s). They may sometimes ask me to name the greatest, but it’s pretty well understood that they’re asking me for my personal favorites, not an oracular pronouncement. Often, interesting and enlightening discussion will follow. There seem to be few better ways to draw out somebody who is considered an expert than by playing this game of favorites.

Sure enough, a number of people forwarded Tommasini’s list to me and asked me what I thought. I told them, and one even proposed his own, more extensive list. This was all pleasant chit-chat and I don’t imagine anybody took it too seriously.

And then there was the parallel discussion on the American Musicological Society’s email list-serve. It wasn’t pretty. The very idea that somebody who writes for a major newspaper (and thus, of course, enjoys a much broader readership than most scholars) would waste anybody’s time with such an exercise aroused great indignation. One poster after another struggled to distance him or herself from the very thought of making such a list. Nevertheless, one couldn’t resist pointing out that his list, if he were ever to stoop so low as to make one, would include Xenakis and other late 20th-century composers that I’m sure you’ve never heard of (Xenakis being the big name among them), unless your tastes are also way on the esoteric side. In which case, I’m sure you’ve stopped reading this by now.

Every once in a while a saner voice would chime in to point out that those among the public who consider us to be a bunch of over-educated prigs might just be onto something. “Now go ahead and flame me,” one concluded. He got his wish.

So what is my point? I suppose it’s that musical non-academics amuse themselves by comparing lists, while musical academics amuse themselves by comparing reasons for not making one. As I said, the two cultures don’t mix. I spend so much time in the classroom educating people that it’s easy to forget that I belong to a small sub-culture of hyper-sophisticated, ironically self-aware, marginalized people who might actually consider putting the 12th-century Parisian enigma known as Perotin on our top-ten list—if, that is, we were ever to make one. Which of course we wouldn’t.


  1. Bill Clary (ORHS '75) has been compiling the "Ipod of Greatness." Music all the way back to medieval Europe has been included so far, although the dominant musical form is American pop of the last 50 years. Certainly no Asian music.

    I don't care for most of the choices, but invariably enjoy Bill's paragraph of backstory on the selection.

    All in good fun.

  2. I have to confess that I have a certain sympathy with the creation of this list....not that I cared much for this list in particular or understood what on earth was meant by "quantifiable greatness" or why Chopin's unconcern with such should disqualify him from the list...

    I'm enough of a perennialist that I'm not particularly bothered by the idea of a canon of great composers quantified in the form of lists. (After all, Harold Bloom includes a list of works constituting the western literary canon as an appendix to his book "The Western Canon.")

    The AMS's list-serve sounds like a frightening conflux of egos - though I do understand some of the feeling experienced by scholars who have dedicated their lives to music only to see themselves upstaged in the public eye by a Simoniac of sorts. I read an analogy of Dave Barry's years ago that has stuck with me: "...squirming like Pavarotti at a Tiny Tim concert..."

  3. @Robin,

    It's on facebook. You may have to friend him to see it. He's a good guy; former radio station dj and station manager, so he knows his "music."

  4. @Zachary - I cut my teeth as an internet discussion poster on the ams-list, as it used to be called. I've been a regular participant for 15 years now. In the days before it was moderated, it could get just as nasty as any blog, and frequently did, even though most of the participants were professors using their own names. In the process, I've learned which discussions to stay out of. This was definitely one of them.