Checking Twitter between AMS papers yesterday afternoon, I saw a few musicology friends grumbling about critic Anthony Tommasini’s new piece in the New York Times, “The Case for Greatness in Classical Music,” adapted from his new book. I took a minute to read it before running off to another paper, and it annoyed me about as much as I expected. To start with, the article is illustrated with the images of Mahler, Beethoven, and Grieg, reminding me of what happens when you do a Google search for “music composers”:


(It goes on like that for a while–Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen finally show up near the end.)

In his penultimate paragraph, Tommasini does acknowledge that the persistent fixation on “greatness” has contributed to inequality in classical music. But the caveat seems like an afterthought, and he remains attached to the concept. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Like most of my Musicology Twitter colleagues, I’m… not. In the courses I teach, I make a point of taking a step back from the “greatness” question, looking instead at what the rhetoric of musical greatness does. (My insistence on this issue may be because as a second-year graduate student, I was assigned to TA a music appreciation course titled “Great Musical Works”–all Dead White Guys, eight Germans plus Bizet and Stravinsky.) Teaching music appreciation, I make it clear to my students that while I hope they find some things to, you know, appreciate about the music we’re studying, I don’t expect them to set aside their own systems of musical value to buy into the idea that classical music is somehow inherently superior to other traditions and styles. I’ve assigned posts from Linda Shaver-Gleason’s Not Another Music History Cliché! blog to get students thinking about what it means to think of someone like Mozart or Beethoven as a “great composer.” In my Women in Music course, we discuss how Romantic-era notions of masculine genius have both limited recognition of women composers and prioritized composition over other professions in classical-music history narratives.

From the discussion on my Twitter feed, it looks like this essay is going to prompt several other blog posts (yay!), so rather than doing a thorough takedown, I just want to make one super-obvious point: that there is no universal standard for greatness in music, and that the language we use to assign value to music reflects our own perspectives, which are shaped by our environment.

(Update: If you’re looking for a thorough takedown, here’s Emily E Hogstad’s post!)

Tommasini’s description of Beethoven’s Third Symphony set off my “okay, but that’s your opinion, my dude” alarm:

This music is colossal, yet also audacious and unpredictable. On the surface the symphony’s four movements seem to come from different realms: a brisk, purposeful Allegro with a searching development section that climaxes midway in a gnashing burst of dissonant chords; a grimly imposing Funeral March; a breathless Scherzo at once godly and giddy; a romping, mischievous Finale that is somehow the ultimate statement of the heroic in music.

But the movements are linked, almost subliminally, by short musical motifs that run through almost every moment of this 50-minute score, lending it inexorable sweep and structural cohesion. Talk about greatness.

Tommasini offers this description to contrast it with his lifelong love of the music of Edvard Grieg, ostensibly a lesser composer than Beethoven and therefore some kind of guilty pleasure. (Pro tip: if you really don’t care whether the music you love is “great,” you don’t need to feel weird about it!) The qualities he hears in the Eroica and the language he uses to describe what he hears reflect a view of musical greatness shaped by… the belief that Beethoven’s music is great, and that its characteristics therefore exemplify greatness. We all do this–we describe the music we like in ways that highlight what we like about it. When it’s the Great Masterpiece of a Great Composer, though, the implication is that greatness is an inherent quality of the music (and the composer), rather than a subjective and culturally conditioned perception.

The idea that Beethoven’s music, or classical music in general, is inherently and objectively “great” perpetuates cultural hierarchies that, as Tommasini gestures at conceding, contribute to exclusion and marginalization on many levels. One of them is the notion that there’s a “right” way to listen to and understand music, and that it’s just a question of learning to ~appreciate~ the greatness inherent in the Great Masterworks. (Can you tell I have mixed feelings about teaching music appreciation?) But even within Tommasini’s field of classical music criticism, what a listener may hear and describe in a piece of music is conditioned by their values and expectations. (I think we all know this–it almost seems too obvious to point out. And yet.)

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the reception of a symphony that, as Tommasini describes Grieg, “would not make many people’s top 10 lists”: Darius Milhaud’s Eighth, subtitled “Rhodanienne” (1957). Like a number of his symphonies, it was commissioned by a U.S. institution–in this case, the University of California, Berkeley, close to his Oakland home. (A few years earlier, the Berkeley music department had made an unsuccessful attempt to lure him away from the Mills College faculty, but that’s a story for another post.)

Following the work’s premiere by the San Francisco Symphony under Enrique Jordá, San Francisco Chronicle critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his review of the concert:

Like so many works of Milhaud, it is full of gracious, shapely tunes given both weight and energy by polytonal harmony and colorful orchestration. I especially liked the third movement, which restores the wild, all-out exuberance so characteristic of Milhaud in his earliest music, and the fourth, which is probably the most grandiose of the numerous pipe-and-tabor folk dance pieces he has written in tribute to his native territory.[1]

Frankenstein stops short of the truly over-the-top praise employed by a few of his colleagues in Bay Area music criticism, but he certainly seems to have enjoyed the piece. Moreover, he heard it in the context of what he already knew and liked of Milhaud’s music–its tunefulness, its energy, its essential Frenchness. While I’m sure there were Chronicle readers who disliked Milhaud’s music and resented having to hear it all the time, they would not have been surprised to see the piece characterized in this way. Milhaud’s ongoing presence in the Bay Area was a point of pride for the region’s classical-music community; newspaper coverage of his activities regularly referred to him as “the greatest living French composer,” and the leading critics depicted him as a composer who was successful, powerful, and still relevant, and whose music was both important and interesting. In this environment, a new work by Milhaud was assumed to be worth hearing, as a valuable contribution to the region’s music culture.

New York City was a different situation. While Milhaud’s professional networks in the United States at the time of his exile from France in 1940 were concentrated there, his ties to the East Coast weakened as he developed closer relationships in the Bay Area. By 1960, a generational shift in New York’s musical hierarchy had displaced many of the allies he had once found there, and he lost the music critics who had viewed his work favorably. Columbia musicologist Paul Henry Lang, who replaced Virgil Thomson (a Milhaud partisan) at the New York Herald Tribune, was especially irritated by Milhaud’s music, finding it formulaic, predictable, and old-fashioned. Lang’s review of the first New York performance of the Eighth Symphony in 1960 picks up on some of the same characteristics Frankenstein identified, but here, they are to be scorned, not celebrated:

The first movement consists of nothing but tricks; Diogenes equipped with a light house could not find musical ideas in it. The second movement offered latex melodies that can be stretched in any direction, while the third and fourth represent a Frenchman’s idea of folksy-gutsy music with lots of ‘wrong’ notes. After a while I was convinced that Milhaud is trying to imitate some of our boys, the Copland and Schuman of the Thirties.[2]

For Lang, the Frenchness and folksiness are defects in the music, and he hears Milhaud’s melodic language as empty rather than substantive. Not only does he hear the music as hopelessly behind the times, but he considers it a cheap imitation of 1930s American music, reversing the trope of American composers looking to France for inspiration.

Just as San Francisco Chronicle readers would be unsurprised to read a positive review of a Milhaud symphony, their New York counterparts would have come to expect the reverse. Imagery of workshops and factories appears regularly in New York reviews of Milhaud’s late-period music, and critics used the figure of the craftsman to dismiss him as competent but uninspired. (Two years later, Lang described another new Milhaud work, Ouverture philharmonique, as “one of those Milhaud jobs that goes reeling along on ball bearings.”)[3] While Milhaud’s prolific productivity was perceived as a sign of vitality in the Bay Area, Lang and his colleagues found it deeply annoying.

Clearly, both Frankenstein and Lang heard Milhaud’s symphony through the divergent lenses of their own personal tastes, musical communities, and professional politics. Is it too much to ask that we acknowledge that we hear Bach and Beethoven the same way?

[1] Alfred Frankenstein, “UC Festival Presents Imbrie, Milhaud,” San Francisco Chronicle, 24 April 1958.

[2] Paul Henry Lang, “Music: Philadelphia Orchestra,” New York Herald Tribune, 3 February 1960.

[3] Paul Henry Lang, “Music: New York Philharmonic,” New York Herald Tribune, 30 November 1962.




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