NYTimes critic just can’t bracket his personal preference for Bach
Like pretty much the whole internet-reading public, I haven’t been able to avoid New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s list of top 10 composers of all time. As Tommasini acknowledges, the point of the exercise is not to settle arguments but to start them. Yet he does proclaim that he’s “open-minded but not a radical relativist.” In other words, he promises to give his readers sound reasons to call one composer “greater” than another.
Strange, then, that Tomassini should have started his list with a blunder. He writes:
So to get things going, let’s start with an easy one: Bach. He would probably be the consensus choice among thinking musicians for the top spot.
“Easy” — but wrong! As Charles Murray found, judging by the number of words devoted to Western composers in standard reference works, Mozart and Beethoven divide the world. I don’t know what Tommassini means by “thinking musicians” here. Confronted with Murray’s evidence, he could perhaps dismiss say, The Grove Dictionary of Music, as “unthinking” and therefore unreliable. Still, as Murray shows, the experts agree that Mozart and Beethoven both overshadow Bach. Many love Bach above all others, and you can hardly begrudge them for doing so. Nevertheless, by a wide margin, he is not the consensus greatest composer.
Now, Murray’s method is certainly not perfect. Perhaps Bach gets less attention from reference works because, unlike, say, Beethoven, he did not powerfully influence generations of followers. Though his music fell out of fashion until Mendelssohn revived it, Bach utterly mastered his particular style. I would argue that he mastered Baroque contrapuntalism even more thoroughly than even Mozart mastered the Classical. Prokofiev, a modernist, composed a “Classical” symphony in the style of Haydyn, and offered it as serious music rather than just an amusing gimmick. He could only do so because he felt that there was still more to achieved in the Classical style than even Hadyn or Mozart had.
No composer would think of doing the same for the late Baroque style. Again and again, Bach’s music leaves you awestruck that so much could be done within the confines of the harmonic and voice leading rules of his era. (The example that thrills me always is the descending pedal line in his Fantasia (and Fugue) in G Minor (starting at 3:50), though there are many others). How, then, could Beethoven be even greater? That’s easy. Beethoven is just as spellbinding intellectually as Bach. How could one man express so much with so few musical elements? Yet Beethoven not only mastered the rules of his era, he broke them. 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. Yet it is. (I say this as a former organist who ought to be prejudiced on Bach’s favor.) Not only that, but Beethoven did it many times over.
I admit: the foregoing remarks about Bach and Beethoven are just my opinions. Still, as someone who rejects radical relativism as much as Tommasini, I think it is safe to say that he plunged in here and got all wet. (And not just because he grossly overrates Debussy, an interesting tonal innovator but little more).
Update: Interestingly, most people in the comments also personally prefer Bach to Beethoven. I admit myself that if I had to live with one composer for the rest of my life, it would be Bach. But that’s of course just a thought experiment. In terms of objective greatness, Beethoven beats Bach.