NYTimes critic just can’t bracket his personal preference for Bach

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Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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  1. Avatar Creon Critic
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    So, who are your top top ten? Following Tomassini’s rules and taking as given all Tomassini’s caveats on the absurdity of the exercise.Report

  2. Avatar RTod
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    I hadn’t seen the Tomassini piece, so thanks for the post. I find my mind pulling in two different directions, each wanting all my focus:

    1. Who would I put, and why? I can’t stop my brain from going there, though I would probably have to use different parameters than Tomassini. (I can’t envision a greatest list of Western composers that leaves Ellington off.)

    2. To what degree if any are we kidding ourselves that we are avoiding relativism when judging music? We all have romantic thoughts about the music that touches us (e.g.: “The originality in Beethoven’s music is so astonishing that listening to it as rather like actually watching the ascension of Christ. This just isn’t supposed to be possible”). I know I do. How much of it is really outside of our selves and our experiences, though? I know tons of people who have heard Beethoven, Mozart, Ellington or even Gershwin and say that it bores them; they prefer Lennon and McCartney.Report

  3. Avatar DougJ
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    This is potentially a thoughtful post and I started it with high hopes. But why drag Charles Murray into it? The guy’s a whack job.

    Otherwise, this is good stuff.Report

  4. Avatar Heidegger
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    Incredible, Austin–another Bachophile lurking among the Philistines–Life is truly great! Bach is nothing less than the center of the musical solar system– Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn absolutely worshiped at the altar of the Leipzig organist and weekly composer of immortal Cantatas. Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion not the other musical masterpieces–Bach was revered without exception by the major composers in the 17th, 18th, 19,th centuries. Simply put, Bach is God. Beethoven had a copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier and studied and practiced it till the day he died. Same with Mozart. He is the rock hard foundation of Western Music at its very height of glory and represents the very best qualities of the human race as it hurtles into the the Milky Way Galaxy aboard the Voyager. And Beethoven is also an extremely deliriously, joyful, madman who literally gave his soul to the human race. One must listen to his 4th piano concerto, Op. 58 under a full moon, out on a lake, to experience the most sublime ecstasy one will ever experience.Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Heidegger
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      “One must listen to his 4th piano concerto, Op. 58 under a full moon, out on a lake, to experience the most sublime ecstasy one will ever experience.”And also because it’s fun to see if the orchestra can get through all three movements before coming up for air.Report

      • Avatar Heidegger in reply to RTod
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        I must also add, RTod, that there is a risk when hearing Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto—The Coast Guard. True story–last summer, under a full moon, and yes, Op.58 was blasting away and I, with baton in hand, rapturously conducting my celestial orchestra–The Milky Way–arms deliriously flailing this way and that way and who should suddenly appear? Yes, THE COAST GUARD!! They thought my conducting was motioning a distress call and needed immediately help or rescue! They said they always wondered who the nut was out in the middle of the lake in the dead of night blasting classical music. So be warned: when conducting a celestial orchestra out on a lake, be careful of arm gestures. Another great lake listen–Beethoven’s 7th Sym. The Allegretto will change your life forever. Also, Op.109, Op.110, Op. 111 piano sonatas. God himself must be dying with pride and love at one of His greatest creations, Ludwig van Beethoven.

        Here is the last movement of Op. 109. Listen hard– besides the divine radiance of this music, toward the end, he creates a musical version of the face/vase illusion. His genius is simply boundless!! Hey, you didn’t think God was going send ONLY one of his sons, did you?Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Heidegger
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      @Heidegger — I take what you’re saying, but also fear you’re overselling Bach’s influence here. The conventional view that Bach was forgotten until Mendelssohn revived interest is probably a bit exaggerated. Still, to say that Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn knew of and respected Bach is different from saying that Bach was a major influence on their music. That Beethoven played the well-tempered clavichord every day may prove only that Beethoven (correctly) recognized it as excellent training for the fingers.

      I don’t think there can be any question that Bach’s impact on later generations can’t compare to Beethoven’s. For a century, composers couldn’t get out of the shadow of Beethoven. Mozart’s generation felt nothing like that of Bach.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    I’m a hopeless Bach fanboy. Nobody compares. No music since can stir me quite like his. I’d take Bach over Beethoven any day of the week. Though taste is taste and there’s really no accounting for it…Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to E.D. Kain
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      Bach is a god. You simply cannot find a work of his that can be called bad — at worst it’s less inspired than his masterpieces are. Beethoven is all too human: fallible, entirely capable of blunders like Wellington’s Victory. But at his best Beethoven moves our souls as only a fellow human could. Bach wrote many things as beautiful as the last movement of the Pastoral Symphony, but never anything as purely joyous.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F.
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    Wow, I guess we’re all really in the same boat on this one. Me too. Whenever I hear a piece of music that absolutely floors me, it’s by Bach.Report

  7. Avatar Ed Chang
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    I totally agree with you on Beethoven. Bach was of course a great innovator, ‘arguably’ greater than Beethoven, but innovation is only part of what makes greatness. As an analogy, Bach is a perfect sphere, where Beethoven is a globe of the Earth…does that make any sense? (Model-T -> Cadillac, Apple-> apple pie, V2 rocket-> Apollo 11, etc…).
    Also, Bach has very little in the way of narrative dynamics (at least in his most famous works), whereas Beethoven’s works generally have some kind of dramatic arc. That appeals to me.Report

  8. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    I thought these sort of top 10 list were for Pitchfork, which I don’t read, either.Report

  9. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    In addition to the usual giants, I’m partial to Saint-Saens. Do Harry Partch, John Cage, Philip Glass, the Eno’s in the early days, or Vangelis count as classical composers? What about John Williams or Hanz Zimmer?Report

  10. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    It’s interesting to compare this kind of dispute to one in a more explicitly competitive field — chess.

    One aspect of chess play is that at the very highest levels, theory really does advance. Unlike music, it’s not a matter of taste, either — some theories win; others lose. But there’s also another question — who applies the theory best? At times, it’s not the person who comes up with it.

    Consider: Adolf Anderssen was world champion in the mid-19th century, but his games aren’t nearly as instructive or theoretically sophisticated as those of Aaron Nimzovich, who was never world champion at all. Though “only” an upper-tier grandmaster, Nimzovich pioneered many of the great strategic concepts of chess in the first third of the twentieth century. Post-Nimzovich, it’s very hard to find a grandmaster who doesn’t play like Nimzovich, at least to some degree. At the highest levels, basically no one plays like Anderssen anymore.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      Lest I was being unclear, Bach seems like a kind of Nimzovich: He invented the way things are done now. That’s not necessarily to say he’s the best at following his own advice.

      Beethoven breaks some of Bach’s rules, as I understand it (I’m on the edge of my knowledge here), but then again, Kasparov isn’t pure Nimzovich, either. Yet without Nimzovich, there’s no Kasparov; without Bach, there’s no Beethoven.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes?Report

      • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        This why surfing isn’t a sport.Report

      • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        Interesting points, Jason. I might also add, without deafness, there is no Beethoven or not the one beloved by the world over. The almost unbearable agony and suffering caused by his deafness is precisely what gave birth to his greatest compositions–they’re inseparable. In the Missa Solemnis, the Preludium to the Benedictus and the Benedictus itself create (for me, at least) an aural representation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with God extending his hand and giving live to Adam. This music is so deeply and heartbreakingly beautiful that my head feels like it will explode. There simply no words left to describe such transcendent, lofty beauty.

        Wow, had no idea you played chess at such a high level, or at least your knowledge of it, is at a very high level. Would love to hear your thoughts on Kasparov vs. Deep Blue–the rematch. Kasparov was at an extremely poor disadvantage by not being able to see previous games played by Deep Blue. I don’t know for sure if the outcome would be different, but it would at very least, level the playing field. Now what would really be interesting would be a match of Deep Blue vs. an identical Deep Blue –an identical twin!Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        It would really take Fritz Leiber to get this right, but:

        Bach is Steinitz.
        Mozart is Capablanca.
        Beethoven is Bobby FischerReport

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          This is in reply to Heidegger, too…

          Steinitz – Bach is a good comparison, although I recall reading somewhere a Steinitz – Brahms comparison too. I don’t understand the basis of that one.

          Mozart – Capablanca sounds reasonable too. Both were prodigies; both were stylistically unremarkable, such that their critics faulted them for lack of personality. At times they both seem to do nothing special, and yet what they do is exactly right.

          That said, I stopped playing chess competitively about twelve years ago. I played almost entirely on the Internet Chess Club, where my rating was around 1700-1800. I suspect I’ve lost a lot since then.

          At that level, you can follow a grandmaster-class game with commentary and understand most of what’s going on. You won’t make serious tactical blunders, and you’ll have at least some grasp of the different strategic ideas. You’ll be able to recognize elements of chess style, but you can’t really be said to have a style of your own yet. My favorite players were Nimzovich, Alekhine, Euwe, and of course Fischer.

          My understanding is that since Kasparov-Deep Blue, computers have so outpaced us that it is often impossible for us to follow their games. In a game between two strong machines, the errors are either so tiny, or so foreign to human analysis, as to be almost undetectable. I really don’t think I have much of value to add there.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            The other obvious comparison is Beethoven-Alekhine for being a sheer, mitigated force of nature . (And Euwe-Buxtehude because both names sound funny.)Report

          • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            Jason, thanks for the reply. And being rated 1700-1800 is nothing short of awesome! Quite impressive, indeed. Unfortunately, we lost one of the all time greats, Bobby Fisher a few years ago. With your encyclopedic knowledge of the greatest game ever invented, where would you rate Bobby Fischer? To say the very least, he pretty much went off the deep-end in the sanity pool, towards the end of his life with his frequent, merciless, rants against Jews, Catholics, Americans and any number of his bizarre fixations. His infamous remarks the day after 9/11, “Yes, well, this is all wonderful news. It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all.” Well, these kinds of words don’t exactly endear him to the general public, but his off the charts genius at chess seems unassailable. Oh well, I know these are impossible questions to answer, but who wins, Fischer vs. Kasparov? How about Fischer vs. Karpov? Fischer vs. Kuznicki? I’m serious. No one wins all the time in any sport, so let’s suppose you played Fischer a hundred times, would you be able to win or draw a few games? Just curious.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Heidegger
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              I think Fischer was the best who ever played. His performance in the candidates’ matches and the world championship may never be equaled again.

              Yes, he was crazy later in life. But then, he had ample reason to be — sometimes, the Soviets really are watching your every move and conspiring against you. That’s enough to make anyone paranoid. Just a shame it spilled over to the United States, to Jews, and all the rest.

              Fischer in his prime would have destroyed anyone, I think. The only way I could win against Fischer would be to imitate Spassky’s performance in game 2. That is, hope for some of his paranoia to show through.Report

              • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                My goodness, he (Fischer) was that much of a walking chess wrecking ball? So you’d agree he was the most gifted, powerful chess player of all time? That’s saying a lot. I guess he really was a ravenous, frothing at the mouth, wolf at the chess table. As you said, who could blame his “paranoia” when playing the Russians and all the Cold War craziness that was going on during that period. It’s quite reasonable that his concerns were entirely legitimate. How do you like the new world champion, “Viswanathan Anand”?

                A new book is out about Bobby Fischer–called “Endgame” I think. Supposed to be very good and written by someone that had spent alot of time with Fischer. What an adventure that must have been. Would love to read about that period of his life when he was a dishwasher and pretty much travelled incognito. This period was after Reykjavik. I think he even had a period in his life when he was a “Jesus Freak”.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Heidegger
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                The other serious candidate for best player ever is Kasparov. Others have dominated the field like Fischer did, but the field was weaker. Morphy and Anderssen didn’t have nearly the level of opponent that either Fischer or Kasparov had.

                Fischer’s paranoia probably started in a very reasonable place. It’s since been admitted by several sources that Soviet grandmasters arranged games with one another to benefit the Soviet chess establishment. Fischer wasn’t taken quite seriously, I think, when he first made the charge. But this seems to have brought him to some absurd generalizations elsewhere.

                Anand is a very fun player to watch. But he doesn’t dominate the field like Fischer did, or like Kasparov and Karpov did during the 80s.

                I’ll say nothing about Fischer’s religion, because I don’t know much about his church, and what I do know I don’t consider trustworthy. I don’t want to badmouth him unnecessarily. He was certainly an anti-Semite, but those alas aren’t restricted by denomination anyway.Report

  11. Avatar Mark F.
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    says:

    Of course Beethoven is number one. But Wagner on a list? Say it ain’t so. Moments of brilliance and hours of boredom!Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Mark F.
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      says:

      Personally, I detest Wagner. But there’s no questioning the originality and genius of his music. In influence, he’s second only to Beethoven. Indeed, Wagner pretty much anticipated every musical development since.Report

      • I personally find Wagner to be fairly vulgar, but I’m curious how much people detest Wagner simply because he was beloved by Nazis.Report

        • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Christopher Carr
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          says:

          Probably a lot. I remember my first week in college playing Wagner in my dorm room. Someone walked in an immediately began sarcastically singing, well, something about genocide.

          You obviously can’t blame Wagner for musical tastes decades after his death. But I can see that it interferes with people’s enjoyment.

          Just as obviously, you can blame Wagner for being a pretty horrid character. But that has no bearing on the quality of his music.

          When I say I detest Wagner, I mean his music. It is so often just intolerable to actually listen to — for me at least. Of course, Wangerites swoon at every note.Report

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