An elderly neighbor of mine has frequently articulated his profound lack of interest in any form of rock music—even the Beatles, in response to a direct query. After months of chipping away, I’ve managed to engender a minor miracle: he may be able to stomach some Beatles after all.
Does this mean that my neighbor now “gets” rock and roll, and is champing at the bit for more? Hardly. The specific Beatles songs that he reacted to (“Your Mother Should Know” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”) are certainly not the best examples of the band’s groundbreaking studio experimentation, nor are they representative of the style, technique, and expressive thrust of rock music in general. So while I’d like to dust off my hands and proclaim “horizons have been broadened!”, that’s not really the case; if my somewhat curmudgeonly neighbor discovered anything, it was most likely that Paul’s music hall-influenced creations are acceptably similar to the kind of music he already found acceptable.
What this only barely successful foray into musical proselytizing made clear to me is that one defining quality of a truly great musical imagination is a body of work that we feel has something to offer us at nearly every stage in life. Sticking with the Beatles for a moment, I can recall that at a young age (when I first became acquainted with their music) it was the poppy, upbeat and tuneful songs—”Paperback Writer,” “Here Comes the Sun,” or the infectious ska-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”—that caught my attention; as a teenager it was, not remarkably, the most obviously unconventional cuts that became my daily bread, like “Revolution 9” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”; as of late, I’ve developed a fascination for the band’s multi-part compositions including the Abbey Road medley as well as more compact creations like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” The Beatles catalog is so rich and varied that even naysayers can find at least something of relevance, and those die-hards among us can count on something that continues to engage rather than gather dust.
When I used to contemplate artistic greatness, I operated from the vague notion that the difference between good and great was one of degrees—great music, I figured, was just a whole lot better than good. That may be, but if there is any meaningful distinction between what we choose to call “good” and “great”, perhaps greatness reveals itself in variety and diversity rather than excellence alone. As I’m using it, greatness might be a term better applied to the totality of an artist’s output, where it conveys a quality other than that of a mere superlative; it is a composite picture rather than a snapshot. Had Stravinsky composed nothing other than The Rite of Spring, it would still be one of my favorite pieces of music. But to me what makes the Rite (and Stravinsky) so great is the fact that he also composed Symphony of Psalms and Agon.