The “Great Music” Myth

The word “great” has to be one of the most over-used words in classical music. From greatest symphony’ lists to ‘greatest recordings’ lists (which nearly always heavily or exclusively feature white male composers), “greatness” seems to be the measure of what makes music worth listening to. But what makes music “great”?

Let’s begin with the Big B, Beethoven. Surely, if anybody’s music is just unequivocally “great”, it’s Beethoven? Well, maybe. But let’s look at some of the factors that made Beethoven famous.

If written accounts are anything to go by, audiences weren’t impressed by the first performances of Beethoven’s music. At the Eroica premiere, for example, one reviewer said it was ‘shrill and bizarre’. In general Beethoven’s music was considered too abstract and unnecessarily difficult to be enjoyable.

So why was Beethoven’s music still performed, and how on earth did he come to have the status he does in music history today? In her book Beethoven and the Construction of Genius, Tia DeNora does a fantastic job of examining the intersecting power structures that made Beethoven “great”. Most important is the underlying shift in philosophical attitudes towards music, spearheaded by writers such as Kant. Roughly speaking, Kant argued that beautiful artworks were those that existed for their own sake, and engaged your mind in an attempt to comprehend the internal working of their constituent parts. 

This meant a change in what “good” music was thought to be. Music that had a purpose (dance music, for example, beloved of the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries), or was melodious and easily comprehensible (Mozart’s operas, say) became merely agreeable. But beautiful, great music demanded reflective judgement. It required the listener to pay attention, to think about what they were hearing, and to enjoy being intellectually challenged by music.

Then we add into this the fact that Beethoven was writing in a period of history when composers were transitioning from being court employees to independently self-employed. This meant attracting wealthy and aristocratic patrons, and these patrons wanted to be trend-setters and taste-shapers. According to contemporary philosophical thinking, this meant seeking out music that was challenging and hard to understand. They wanted to patronise the 1800s avant-garde, the music that most people didn’t “get”.

Enter Beethoven with his ‘shrill and bizarre’ music. He was in the right place at the right time, composing music that fitted this bill perfectly. Of course, this is no coincidence. He was a product of his time, and he was writing music in this way because he was influenced by these factors. 

But these two ideas — that music should be autonomous, and should be intellectually challenging — have been completely formative for the history of classical music from the 1800s onwards. They underpin the formation of the canon as we have it now, and the expectations that we place on “great” music. Many of the earliest musicological efforts were dedicated to proving the autonomy, unity, intellectual difficulty and therefore “greatness” of musical works. Take, for example, E. T. A. Hoffmann writing about Beethoven in 1809/10:

Music discloses to a man an unknown kingdom, a world having nothing in common with the external sensual world which surrounds him … Aesthetic mechanicians have often lamented the absolute lack of underlying unity and structure in Shakespeare, while the deeper glance could see the beautiful tree with leaves, blossoms, and fruit growing from one germinating seed; so it is that only through a very deep study of Beethoven’s instrumental music is that conscious thoughtfulness of composition disclosed which always accompanies true genius and is nourished by a study of art.

But there are a number of issues here. For a start, music is not autonomous. It does not exist outside of society. It is a deeply human endeavour, and both shapes and is shaped by our desires and prejudices. 

Let’s look at just one factor that has determined which music makes it into the annals of history — gender. Countless women composers were marginalised during their lifetimes purely because of their gender (if you want to read an in-depth piece about gender and greatness, there’s one by Elizabeth de Brito here). Whether or not their music could be deemed “great” within the context of the time, women composers’ works were frequently lambasted in the press (usually by male writers), and they were undermined and unfairly criticised. 

Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata is a prime example. She entered this piece into a competition anonymously, and it tied for first place with another sonata by Ernest Bloch. Objectively, without any knowledge of who the composer was, this music was thought to be excellent. But when it was announced that Clarke was the composer, some critics preferred to believe that Clarke was a man (possibly Bloch) using a female pseudonym. After all, as Otto Weininger put it in 1903, ‘the female cannot be possessed of genius.’ Woe betide the critic who forgot.

And this is just the music that we know of. Even if we want to counteract years of misogynistic thinking and start listening to women’s music afresh, we have the problem that a lot of their music is simply very difficult to trace. Music by women often wasn’t considered important enough in their day to catalogue, publish, and preserve. 

Let’s take Florence Ashton Marshall (1843-1922). She conducted the South Hampstead Orchestra, studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and composed a symphony (amongst other works) which was definitely performed by the RA orchestra. Both she and her husband, Julian, were music writers who contributed to the first edition of Grove Dictionary of Music. Her husband also collected music editions of “great” composers. I bet you can guess whose papers are meticulously catalogued in the British Library, and whose aren’t. Julian’s music collection is extremely easy to trace, but Florence’s music is not. 

This is such a familiar story with women composers. Amanda Maier’s Piano Trio was only rediscovered by chance, many years after her death, when it was found by her grandson nestled among some family papers. Florence Price had similar publication issues. Although some of her music has been continuously performed and published, Doug Shadle has written a brilliant piece (available here) on how she struggled to get a lot of her music published during her lifetime. He shows how Price had to negotiate prejudice about both her gender and her race, as a black woman composer in early twentieth-century America. 

Music isn’t objectively “great”. When we say that a piece of music is “great”, when we decide to programme it or write about it, we’re making a value judgement. We’re responding to the cultural and political influences of our own day, and perhaps inadvertently inheriting some from the past that trickle down through absent sources and subliminal assumptions. Which is why I have a problem with those “greatest” classical music lists that are majority white, male, and Austro-German. They maintain a limited perspective on what “greatness” is, and who can achieve it.

This leads me to another issue, of classical music’s exclusivity. The word “great” tries to add some veneer of objectivity to value judgements. Partly, it does this by bestowing upon the music a label that marks it as being above average, better than usual — worthy. We’re still adhering to that Kantian idea that music has to be more than being just enjoyable. “Great” music is the best there is. It’s aspirational. 

The implication is that this music is objectively “great” and if you don’t like it, then the issue lies with you, the listener. You just don’t “get” it, and if you learn to listen in a different way, eventually you’ll come to appreciate it. Returning to dear old Hoffmann:

what if the inner, underlying organic structures of these Beethoven compositions have escaped your superficial glance? What if the trouble is with you, that you do not understand the master’s speech, intelligible to those to whom it is dedicated?

Sure, this was written in 1809/10, but traces of it linger in the claims made about “great” music today. While for some new listeners this might be an intriguing challenge, surely for many it is alienating. It adds to the culture that means we need so many listening guides to help ‘intimidated newcomers’. Especially when “greatness” is so often applied to so small a range of music, this becomes a way of policing classical music, of keeping it the preserve of the initiates who are au fait with the 250 greatest recordings/symphonies/operas/etc of all time. But I don’t see why we should all like the same music, or listen in the same way. 

Why does classical music have to be “great” anyway? Why can’t it be thrilling, enjoyable, astonishing, sensual, haunting, mesmerising, captivating, or any other adjective you care to put to it? There is more to music than “greatness”, surely, and broadening the way we conceive of classical music can only enrich our musical experiences.

Let’s ditch the “great”, and start having more fun with our music instead.


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