Greatest Composer. Best Musical. Top 100 rock albums. Everyone has their favorites, everyone has their opinions, and everyone has their gun cocked to defend their opinion. Wars are fought and friendships rocked over the subject of the greatest in music.
“Wagner? No, Beethoven! No, Sibelius!” “HAIR? No, CYRANO!” “YES? NO!!!!”. “Lanza??? PLAY SOME SKYNYRD!!!”
“Attack someone’s political opinions and risk being taken for a fool but assault someone’s musical tastes and you may be taken as an enemy.”
It’s funny because it’s true.
But what does it mean to say that a piece of music, or a composer, is “the greatest?” Is there any objective basis to make that claim? Even Ayn Rand wasn’t touching that one with a ten foot pole. Not because it was impossible, but because she knew that not enough was known to make that claim. (Leaving aside certain verifiable technical criteria: “Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgement is possible in the field of music...There are certain technical criteria, dealing mainly with the complexity of harmonic structures, but there are no criteria for identifying the content, i.e., the emotional meaning of a given piece of music and thus demonstrating the esthetic objectivity of a given response.”) Not yet, anyway...
Until then, here’s a question: Is the idea of a “greatest composer,” even if someday objectively verifiable, even desirable?
Nathaniel Branden, in his essay “The Divine Right of Stagnation” in The Virtue of Selfishness, raises this devil of a question. “Every achievement of man is a value in itself, but it is also a stepping-stone to greater achievements and values. Life is growth; not to move forward, is to fall backward...Every step upward opens to man a wider range of action and achievement-and creates the need for that action and achievement.”
Branden makes his point clear, which addresses this topic: “There is no final, permanent ‘plateau.’ The problem of survival is never ‘solved,’ once and for all, with no further or motion required. More precisely, the problem of survival IS solved, by recognizing that survival demands constant growth and creativeness.”
The scary thing about the possibility of naming the greatest musical composer or composition is not the hurt feelings of lesser composers, or the possibility that one million Elvis fans could be wrong, but the idea of the finality of naming the greatest; everything else after that would be a result of “the divine right of stagnation.” Is that it? Is there no where else to go? Can this great achievement never be topped? Why even try? “Game over, man, Game over!”
OK, a bit dramatic. But not unrealistic. If this sounds funny, reread The Fountainhead, and witness the struggle of Howard Roark against the classicists who proclaimed that no one could improve upon the Renaissance.
In discussion of futuristic science fiction, one participant in the genre commented that science fiction was not about getting the future right, because then there would be only one science fiction book, “the right one.” It really is something of a Platonic fantasy, that all these compositions are somehow imperfect models of an ideal form. And there is something of a snobbish quality involved as well in some claims. (Penn and Teller exposed this in an episode of “BULLSHIT!”, pouring refreshing tap water for unsuspecting snobs who thought they were drinking only the finest of bottled waters. Evian=Naive.) But one can be seriously committed to quality in any endeavor, and standards should strive to provide the “best of possible worlds.” Even a punk musician strives to be the best punk musician ( but this, of course, required by the twisted logic of punk, led to the the “least of all possible worlds.”) Music is no exception. But because life does require constant growth, we must never accept the greatest achievements of the past as the pinnacle of possibilities.