The Great Composers? Part III

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Heinrich Schenker

Click here for Parts i and iii (published together).


The Major League—Not All Bad

The Major League of Composers may be the sterile, misshapen offspring of an uneasy union between critical approbation and public enthusiasm, but, like the mule, it is very obstinate and not entirely useless. If we first acknowledge that it is meaningless to anyone who is not in some way part of the “classical” music crowd, we can see that within that crowd it represents with fair accuracy a broad spectrum of responses. Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Lincoln Center are usually sold out weeks ahead of time. Beethoven’s symphonies are still a greater draw than anyone else’s. People don’t go to these concerts because they have been told that the composers are “great” but because they find the music thrilling and uplifting.

There have been some promotions and relegations; Mozart has been elevated to the First Division, perhaps at the expense of Brahms, while Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky have become classics instead of merely being “classical,” and Sibelius, having gone in and out of the lower reaches of the Pantheon, seems to be on his way back in. The positions of Bruckner and Mahler have improved greatly and the music of composers like Machaut, Dufay and Josquin has turned out to be performable, communicative and, possibly, “great.” Schoenberg and his followers conquered the academic world but, apart from a very few works of compelling power and beauty, never made it with the concert-going public. Since Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok are still regarded as “modern” we have had to invent a new category known as “postmodern,” which is a miscellaneous grab-bag of all the ways in which present-day composers are trying to revive the past, escape from it, or do both at the same time. Some wonderful music has been produced in the process, and some of it has significantly penetrated the concert halls, but one of the qualifications for entry into the Major League is to be good and dead.

The habit of ranking may have decreased in music while it seems to have increased in almost everything else, but people still vote with their time and their money. They have their disagreements with the critics, especially over some of the late romantics, and the league is not as influential as it was sixty years ago; but it hasn’t gone away.

The history and the composition of the Major League are clearly matters of considerable interest to anyone who is trying to understand how and why some composers have generally been acknowledged as “great” and others haven’t. What was it about these composers and their music that brought about their long dominance in history books and concert halls?


It must be recognized that one’s view of the music scene depends on one’s vantage point. The Major League as I have described it glorifies the Germanic stream of composition as seen by a young man growing up in England. According to German musicology, as noted by Warren Dwight Allen in his Philosophies of Music History:

“Just as Luther triumphed over the papacy, so also, Germany, formerly only a geographical term, has triumphed over the musical empire to the south [Italy]. All lines of evolution meet in Wagner, with Liszt at his side.”

Many Italian and French people would strongly disagree, however; Allen continues:

“Clément, a French musicologist, includes Saint-Säens but barely mentions Brahms, and, while admitting that Wagner possessed consummate knowledge, asserts that he had no taste; ‘Harmony of proportions was unknown to him … his sterility of imagination explains his banishment of pure melody.’”

Meanwhile, in Italy, “Fiorino, a violent anti-Wagnerian, claimed that, ‘The universal language of song and our modern national language arose in Tuscany, in the same land and at the same time… thus we see Italy mistress of the world in everything.’”

It was not all serene in Germany: “Nietzsche, in spite of his influential theories of the superman, made no application of the same to the German ‘race’, and broke with Wagner, very largely on this account. Nietzsche even went into self-imposed exile rather than live among his imperialistic countrymen. ‘Wagner’s stage’, he writes, ‘requires one thing—Germans! The definition of a German: an obedient man with long legs… There is a deep significance in the fact that the rise of Wagner coincides with the rise of Empire… Never have people been more obedient, never have they been so well ordered about. The conductors of Wagnerian orchestras are worthy of an age which posterity will one day call with timid awe the classical age of war.’”

If Nietzsche lost his sanity it was probably as a result of seeing things too clearly.


In the German- and English-speaking countries during the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, conventional music history found a whole theory of progressive musical evolution implicit in the work of the succession of Germanic composers from Bach to Brahms. Chopin was an anomaly, explained by Charles Rosen, one of the great pianists and commentators of our time; referring to Heinrich Schenker, a very influential German theorist of the early twentieth century, Rosen writes:

“His book on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was dedicated to ‘Brahms, the last great master of German music.’ ‘German’, however, was an unnecessary [descriptive] for Schenker, who considered the ability to sustain musical expression a proof of membership in the German race, even if one had foreign blood in one’s veins. Chopin, whom Schenker used to illustrate his theories almost as often as Beethoven, would, I presume, be an honorary German.”

Italian opera, beloved by masses of music lovers, was felt to be peripheral to the main line of progress, as also were the so-called “nationalist” composers, Grieg, Smetana, Dvořak, Tchaikovsky and the Russian Five. Debussy and Ravel were eventually accepted as major figures, but to the musical intelligentsia it seemed clear that the main evolutionary stream was continued by Mahler and the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

In a certain limited sense the intelligentsia were right, but we have to acknowledge that the recognition of an evolutionary stream depends on our feelings about the results. Most people seem to think that the important biological evolutionary stream is the one that produced a dominant race of human beings rather than the one that produced a dominant race of bacteria. If the bacteria had an opinion it would presumably be different. To put the matter very simply, if a large number of the composers who mean most to us are Germanic—Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler—we are quite likely to give major historical and evolutionary importance to the long line of Germanic composers. This suggests that instead of debating the relative “greatness” of these composers and their contemporaries, it may be more rewarding to try to understand what it is in their music that stirs us so deeply that we are apt to regard them as the “greatest” who ever lived.

I should warn the reader that this quest for understanding will continue to be long and episodic, and that the connections between different parts of the journey will not always be obvious.

Click here for Parts i and iii (published together).

About the author

Keith Francis

Keith Francis was born in Suffolk, England, in 1933. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester and the University of Cambridge, where he read Natural Science, specializing in Atomic Physics, and served as a cantor in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College. After graduating in 1956 he worked as an engineer for Bristol Aircraft before going back to Cambridge to get his teaching diploma and subsequently returning to the Crypt School to teach physics and mathematics at the college entrance level. He also frequently substituted for an ailing music teacher.

In 1965 he joined the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan and stayed there until his retirement in 1996. He was hired to teach physics and math, but he soon took over most of the music program in the high school, and was also responsible for organizing an earth science/ecology program and doing most of the teaching. Later on he taught quite a bit of English and held various administrative positions including High School Administrator and Faculty Chair.

Since his retirement he has published a memoir (The Education of a Waldorf Teacher), several novels, a history of the atomic theory (From Abdera to Copenhagen) and Rudolf Steiner and the Atom. In 2001 he founded the Fifteenth Street Singers and directed the group for the following eight years.

Keith is married, has two sons and four granddaughters, and divides his time between New York City and Southern Berkshire County.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Mr Francis – I did indeed enjoy your article on the G Composers – Michael Miller sent me a copy of the review – very thoughtful of him – I dont get on the machine much – so I often don’t see stuff for long periods of time – I was glad to see you live in the Berkshires – I in north county now and 20yrs plus in south – I’ll catch your other articles at some later date – thanks for the good read and insight – Nathan smith

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