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Best-loved composers?

David Arditti requests an alternative survey of composers

Basil Ramsey invites a vote on the 20th century composers 'whose music and message has taken Music forward as an Art, subject to the same principles of vitality and stylistic progress as other arts'. I for one am not very interested in taking part in such a vote, particularly when the editor makes such an unsubtle attempt to bias the result as warning us to 'Beware of the pitfall of naming composers who have written comfortably and well in a prevailing style', making it rather clear the type of composer he wants us to vote for, and which has indeed been reflected in the votes cast so far (most for Stravinky and Schoenberg, very few for anyone else). Would not a better and more relevant vote be of those 20th century 'classical' composers who have given most enjoyment to the largest number of people through their work? Then we might see a stronger representation for Sibelius, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bernstein, i.e. the popular 20th century composers rather than the academically-lauded but little listened-to who dominate the M&V vote. (I agree that Stravinsky and Schoenberg did write some popular pieces, but this does not affect the general thrust of my argument).

The question that Basil poses makes sense from the point of view of what I would call the 'music as an aspect of technological progress' idea, which has been a critical orthodoxy in the post-war period. That is the view that music, to 'progress', has neccesarily to continually evolve into an art-form that becomes more complex, abstract and indirect in expression, even if that means leaving the vast majority of its potential listeners behind in bemused incomprehension. If however, one views music as primarily an entertaining art-form that must be justified by giving pleasure to significant numbers of non-specialist listeners, the issue of whether it is seen to 'progress' according to some arbitrary and frankly irrelevant academic critical standards being treated as secondary, then the composers that I have listed would emerge as the more important 20th century composers, and ultimately the most influential as well, because their audience is so much greater. Schoenberg may have invented serial composition, pioneering, and critics would argue, influential, but serial music has a very low popularity, and if his influence was primarily only on later composers who also wrote music that has very low popularity, then where is this 'influence' from the man-in-the-street's perspective? In a sense, I would argue, the long-term influence on our culture of a composer such as Rachmaninov, who did, as Basil says, write 'comfortably and well in a prevailing style', is greater, because so many people who know little about music will know his music through films, adverts etc.

So what about an alternative vote as to who are the best-loved composers of the 20th century? I have a suspicion that this could prove more of a guide to the music that could emerge in the 21st. After all, who listens to Fux, Cherubini and Spohr these days? They are all composers who were considered highly 'influential' by the academic critics of their day.

Copyright © David Arditti, May 12th 1999



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