Tuesday, April 14, 2009


For some time, I've kept informal plus/minus scores in my head as a way of thinking about which composers I like more or less than the norm. Of course, calibrating such a scale is really impossible since there is no establishable norm, but that's part of the fun as well. I can easily imagine that some would object to this sort of rating system - music shouldn't be about ratings, and composers shouldn't be put in boxes. And I shouldn't go to Dunkin' Donuts so often...

Actually, I think charting quirky likes and dislikes is an interesting way to find out about people. I've never been a fan of most kinds of "mixer" games, but we once hosted a church small group meeting at our house when we began informally going around the room to learn everyone's favorite movie/TV show/music. It turned out to be a great way to learn about people and to get all sorts of discussions going. It's always fun to mystify people by declaring that The Purple Rose of Cairo is the best movie of all time.

Anyway, I thought I'd see if I could get some Twitter discussion going by posting some of my plus/minus thoughts there, but they attracted zero interest. So, I might as well recycle this information here. A few explanatory notes. First, I believe this list says more about me than the composers listed. I continue to find Haydn less compelling than many respectable and insightful people, and I'm happy to admit that the failing is mine. I also would gladly admit that he's a very fine composer, and I really enjoy some of his works - the point of this system is to document the disconnect I feel vs. what I perceive to be his overall reputation.

Another way of saying this is that it would be fine if I encountered much less Haydn than I do. On the other hand, I'm not sure I could ever get too much of Poulenc or Scriabin, two admired composers who, nevertheless, don't have thrones as high up on Olympus as I think they should. Thus, they could get my highest + scores, coming in at +3 each. Notice that many of the standard "greats" get zeros; I adore Beethoven and find his music indispensable in my life, but that hardly makes me unique. Same for Mozart; there are times when I'd be tempted to give him a +1, but then I fall asleep listening to one of Sarastro's arias, and I figure his reputation is just about right.

I don't know if it's really possible to be a +1 for Bach either - there are probably some people who are even more fanatical than I am, but still, it's possible that he gets as many as four works on my all-time Top Ten, so +1 feels right. Note that these ratings don't necessarily mean I think a plus composer is better than one with a zero or a minus. I don't know that I'd say Schumann is better than Chopin, but everyone seems to adore Chopin, whereas Schumann always attracts a certain amount of criticism, even if his achievements are considerably more wide-ranging than Chopin's. I'd rate them as about equal on the overall Olympian scale, but Schumann's music probably tears me up more inside. (By the way, that's a blog post of its own. When I was in college, Brahms was definitely the most important composer to me, and Schumann struck me as somewhat bizarre - now, I still love Brahms, but Schumann hits deeper.)

So, here's a starter plus/minus scale. Notice the ever controversial Wagner comes in at a break-even zero, which might be the oddest score here. The truth is, probably most composers would float around the zero mark, so, to some degree, this is just a way to say that I really love Poulenc and Scriabin - and I'm a bit mystified by Haydn and Verdi.

Bach: +1
Bartók : -2
Beethoven: 0
Brahms: +1
Britten: +1
Chopin: 0
Handel: 0
Haydn: -5
Mozart: 0
Poulenc: +3
Schubert: +1
Schumann: +2
Scriabin: +3
Schütz: -2
Verdi: -4
Wagner: 0

Please don't hate me or think of less me. Hey, I've forgiven Terry Teachout for dissing Brahms' Requiem. We are who we are, but maybe, just maybe, Haydn will some day make it up to -4.

UPDATE (4/15): Added Bartók, Brahms, Britten, and Handel. Most of the big names not on the list (Copland, Debussy, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Strauss, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, etc.) would probably fall right around zero; I think it's particularly difficult to calibrate general opinion for more recent composers, so although I might have strong opinions about some, I don't feel a clear plus/minus tension about them.

UPDATE (5/3): Bumped Brahms up to +1 after hearing Mia Chung play Brahms 2nd concerto last night. Unbelievably gripping, stunning, overpowering, affecting... (and there's the piano quinet, the C minor piano quartet, the F minor sonata, the "Handel" variations, the violin sonatas, the...what was I thinking giving Brahms a 0?)


dfan said...

It's tough to come up with good negative numbers here, because the composers that I like the least (relative to their popularity) are generally the ones that I listen to the least and thus know the least...

But here are the non-zero deltas I can think of in five minutes:

D Scarlatti +3 (definitely my biggest outlier)
Messiaen +2
Feldman +1
Haydn +1 (for those string quartets alone!)
Berg +1
Beethoven -1 (overdosed)
Carter -2
Handel -2
Verdi -2

Yvonne said...

These didn't go unnoticed on twitter – but how to respond in 140 characters, other than with one's own?

I was most surprised by your Haydn score. I concluded that perhaps you believed the more people think more highly of Haydn than actually do.

My general impression is that Haydn is (sadly) hugely under-appreciated, much as people might express respect or admiration for him (for example, he's not programmed in orchestral concerts nearly often enough; he does get a slightly better run in chamber music).

This is a tough but intriguing exercise. Some initial +/- thoughts, without numerical or sequential ranking, for my personal scale:
+ Prokofiev
+ Ravel
+ Poulenc
+ Mendelssohn
+ Haydn
+ CPE Bach
- Shostakovich
- Beethoven
- Mahler



Scarlatti's a good one - and I have to admit he slips off my radar screen more than he should. As it happened, he was one of the subjects of yesterday's music history class, and I really had to restrain myself (for time's sake) not to play (recordings of) more than 3-4 examples. So many ridiculously engaging pieces. And yet, for some reason he disappears from my life for long periods. Not sure how to explain that. Also, thanks for your comment awhile back about Piano Hero. Pretty cool to have a Guitar Hero creator interested in the piano thing.


Thanks, and apologies if I sounded self-pitying about the lack of Twitter responses. It is a difficult topic to tweet. (I spend way too much time on Twitter trying to get my updates right at the 140 limit.)

I've sort of made it an ongoing joke here about my Haydn problem, so the -5 is an intentional exaggeration. (I'd thought of just making it -473, to be more obvious.) You're probably correct that there are many (like me) who appreciate Haydn's great technical skill and creativity, but just don't feel drawn inside the music, and that probably makes him seem underrated to his biggest fans. I'm still waiting for the epiphany to happen for me, and I hope it does. It took me a long time with Schumann as well.

CPE Bach also came up in yesterday's class, and although some of his music bewilders me, I'm finding more and more of his music that I love. I'm resolving to assign more CPE Bach and Couperin to my piano students.

Thomas said...

Okay, this is an interesting concept! So much so I'll finally stop lurking and comment...

Excluding all zeros, as well as composers who I'm just not familiar enough with yet:

Bruckner +2
Mahler +1
Brahms -5 (I never could see what was so special about his music)
Carter -1
Webern +5 (I've met exactly one other Webern fan)
Mozart -1 (He's good and all, but a tad overrated)
Verdi -3
Schumann -2
Berg +2
Babbitt +1
Copland -1


I find it really interesting to see these numbers. Right off, Thomas's list makes me want to hear some Webern. (I'm not a hater, but I still respect Webern more than love. He did provide me with one of my blog's bigger moments, thanks to Alex Ross.) Even the Brahms thing makes sense to me; I'm a big Brahms fan, but I can see how he can annoy.

Dan B. said...

I definitely approve of Purple Rose- while I find Annie Hall a better film, Purple Rose comes in a close second.

In general, I have sort of a running list of undervalued films by well-regarded directors (Allen's Purple Rose, Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Brooks's Broadcast News, Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock).

And as for composers, I find it easy to pinpoint the ones I like less than most people (Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Shostokovich) but harder to pick the ones I like more (Rouse? Bernstein? Adams?). Maybe I pretend people like them a lot.


My biggest problem with "Annie Hall" is Annie Hall - which is to say, Diane Keaton. I just don't find her very funny, although she didn't manage to keep "Love and Death" from being the funniest movie ever. "Annie Hall" is full of great lines, but "Purple Rose" is genuinely poignant - and Mia Farrow is fantastic.

Sometimes I wonder if "The Purple Rose" is my favorite in part because it came out (1985) when I was just starting to appreciate that kind of movie, so it felt like a real discovery. My list of favorite movies is completely dominated by films from the early 80s through the 90s, which can hardly be a coincidence.

Tim J said...

I couldn't see a note of what range your scale covers! Assuming it goes from -5 to +5, I'm going to be a heretic (since Mozart appreciation is a religion) and give Mozart -2. I quite enjoy playing his music and making it sound nice, but have trouble listening to it because of (i) the monotonously predictable phrase structure makes me want to scream, (ii) there's not much harmonic interest and the harmony is the most important thing to me, and (iii) he has some really irritating mannerisms.

Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen, Bartok and Shostakovich can have +5 each.
Haydn +2 (full of wit and inventiveness, pointing towards Beethoven).

Most opera performances would get -5, not for the music but because I find the singers' vibrato unbearable to listen to. I have to physically turn the radio off within a minute or two. Again, this is because harmony is so important to me: vibrato as extreme as typically heard in opera singing prevents there from being any harmony, because the notes can't blend into chords any more.

Maybe everyone will be horrified that I put Mozart so low, but for me the harmony and rhythm are generally more important than "tunes". Give me the slow movement of Shostakovich 5 with its impassioned dissonant climax, or the "How the heck did we get into this key?!" surprises of Haydn any day.


Thanks for the good, strong opinions, Tim J. That's what it's all about. I can understand the Mozart thing - I think it's too often forgotten that he was really just starting to hit his peak in the last 5-6 years of this life. As with Schubert (and Purcell), it's awe-inspiring to think what a 50-year old Mozart might have accomplished. Anyway, I agree that there are many works of his that aren't completely satisfying, and yet they get played again and again because they're Mozart. But, there are so many transcendent moments in Figaro, the late concerti and symphonies, the Requiem, etc. And to be honest, as with Schubert, I'm often at a loss to say just why the music is so affecting. (Come to think of it, I have to try to make the case in tomorrow's music history class.)

I'm also quite sympathetic to your vibrato problem with opera. I lead a kind of distorted life in that regard, because I do a lot of opera rep, but mostly with young singers whose voices are, in some ways, more pleasing than the big, throbbing mega-stars. That kind of singing, which evolved to fill up big spaces, is really an acquired taste, and I also haven't completely acquired it.

Thanks also for the Twitter tip. I finally figured out where the reply information is hidden.