Playing the Dozens

The flurry of comments in response to Rob Deemer’s latest NewMusicBox post, “Found: Three Examples of 21st Century Music,” reveals how fraught with controversy it has become to establish anything that even faintly resembles a canon at this point in our history. While that is not what Rob was attempting to do (and I’m not trying to suggest that he was), his motives are extraneous to the passions that an assumption of such an effort provokes. Yet curiously, in a recent blog post over at Sequenza21 (cited in “Alex Shapiro’s response to Rob’s essay and written, ironically, in response to another NewMusicBox post by Deemer in which he provided a list of 202 women composers and offered anyone reading to add more names), composer Judith Lang Zaimont suggests that we should be narrowing our field:

What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many. Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

With all respect to Judith Lang Zaimont, whose music I have admired for decades and whose writings about music are insightful, I would hate to limit myself to three or six or even two hundred and, if there’s any generalization we can make about our current music culture, we no longer need to. I probably discover at least a dozen new composers every week (both contemporary and from the past), and for that I am grateful. I hope it never ends.

So I would be extremely uncomfortable with the assignment that Rob was given; I’m glad no one asked me to do it. Last year I devoted a lion’s share of my free time to updating and revising the articles about American orchestra music and American chamber music for the forthcoming new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music; in both cases, I went way past double my word limit in an effort to cite as many composers and works as I could cram in and I still feel heartbroken about all the works I couldn’t squeeze in. I don’t feel the need to defend Rob or his specific choices for three examples of 21st century music, especially since Alex Shapiro has already so articulately done so in the comments, despite ““Anonymous Matt”’s rebuttal that she was “exhibiting a Fox News mentality.” (Who is that guy?) But I would like to engage in Daniel Wolf’s thought experiment because I think it could lead us into a new and equally interesting area for discussion:

[C]onsider, as a thought experiment, trying to sum up the first decade of the 20th century in only three works. So I choose something of Debussy, Strauss and Ives. A nice group with some great pieces in the decade, but hardly representative or even suggestive as I’ve certainly missed very important and very different works by i.a. Ravel, Mahler, Puccini, Skryabin, Satie, Schoenberg.

If we were miraculously transported back to April 1912, we would have a very different view of the 20th century than we do now. Imagine being just barely twelve years into the 20th century: the first performance of Pierrot lunaire would not take place until October 16 and the riots during the premiere The Rite of Spring would not occur until the following year. Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen would have been three years old, and not yet aware of any of this. John Cage would not yet have been born. There would be no radio or television and live performance either in concert halls or in people’s homes (played from published sheet music) would have been the way music was mostly consumed; commercially released recordings were still a novelty that most people didn’t take very seriously. (Remember that merely twelve years before the start of the new century novelist Edward Bellamy, not being able to comprehend the possibility of recorded sound, imagined an alternative late 20th century where everyone had music in their homes as a result of using a telephone to call dedicated music rooms that operated 24/7.)

As for Wolf’s choices of Debussy, Strauss, and Ives as the three representatives of 20th-century music based on only being around for the first 12 years of it, I’m reminded of the cliché of hindsight being 20/20. Ives would certainly not have made anyone’s cut. At that point in history he was an unknown “amateur” composer and therefore would have been outside the purview of all of us. (The way music was disseminated in the year 1912 is difficult to fathom in our own time where being able to access the music of just about everybody is taken for granted; perhaps the greatest testimony to that sea change is our ability to easily find the music of our own era’s “amateur” composers about whom Dennis Bathory-Kitsz wrote so eloquently.) Also, an American would never have made the grade, especially not in the United States where our sense of cultural inferiority was artistically stifling for many at the time. (Also women, sadly, would never have been considered for such an honor despite the extraordinary music being written at that time by Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger, among others; nor would people of color despite the publication of the vocal score of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha only a year earlier, in 1911.) More than likely the list would have been filled with composers like Max Reger, whom we hardly think of as a 20th century composer (since he died in 1916) if we think of him at all. This is in no way to disparage Reger, whose music I find endlessly fascinating. In fact, if anything, history’s weeding out of composers from earlier times can be far more unjust than singling out people in our own (at a time when there is also a platform for healthy debate about it).

But let’s take the exercise even further back in time to April 1812, a time that many establishment classical music purveyors continue to fixate on. Indeed, Beethoven was all the rage. He had already composed 26 of his 32 piano sonatas, as well as six of his nine symphonies, and the 7th and 8th would be completed later in the year. Many of the most influential arbiters of taste hailed him as the world’s greatest composer; for better or worse, they frequently still do. But almost as highly regarded at the time were Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek (who tragically died a mere month earlier on March 20). History has not been terribly kind to either of these composers. The Dussek entry in the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians posits that history might have overlooked Dussek because so many passages in his music sound like the music of other composers, albeit composers whose sound-alike works postdate his. History’s selectivity can be capricious and extremely unfair, which is why the more of us who can write history the better off we all are in the long run. In our own era of plentitude, a few adventurous record labels have issued recordings of music by Clementi and Dussek; I’ve recently been listening to them and have loved everything I’ve heard. So rather than worrying about how history will determine who the “great” ones are, I would argue that it’s more important for us to be as open and generous to everything as we can possibly be and do everything we can to ensure that all of it thrives. And, if it all does in fact thrive as a result, when folks in 2112 start picking fights about the music of our time, they might actually have a leg to stand on.

10 thoughts on “Playing the Dozens

  1. Ian Pace

    I wonder if any really prophetic commentators in 1812 might have a hunch that everything would come together for Gioachino Rossini the following year, with Tancredi (first performed in 1813) showing a new level of maturity beyond his earlier operas (of which eight had already been produced), and that he would go on to transform the medium, become perhaps the most popular composer in Europe in the 1820s (more so than Beethoven, including in the latter’s adopted city of Vienna) and have an immeasurable influence upon Italian and some other opera for the rest of the century?

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      In that case, I’ve certainly not played it safe. All I ever do is say stuff, and I’m about to say some more… ;)

      I ultimately think that thus far in the 21st century there is nothing limiting us from experiencing everything–not just 3 composers or 6 composers or 202 composers, but a seemingly infinite array of music, so to impose a limit on anything is artificial and unnecessary. All we need is the time to listen to it, although admittedly time is regretfully finite. (Sleep is over-rated ;)….)

      New music is being composed every day, every hour. There will only be more of it in the future and that’s great. Sadly those who created canons in the past were reluctant to let in the new because if the canon of works was, say, 100 pieces and 3 new pieces got let in, that would mean that 3 pieces that were previously in would need to kicked out. Which ones? Get rid of Brahms to make room for Henry Cowell? It never happened. It shouldn’t happen, but Cowell should be up there with Brahms nevertheless IMHO.

      And, as I’ve been discovering from my recent immersion into the music of some of the lesser known 18th century and 19th European composers, they too are worthy of our ears and should not have been “kicked out” of the canon. (Well, actually, in many cases, they might never have gotten in in the first place.) At least we can experience much of this music on recordings whether or not we ever get to hear it live wherever we may live. When’s the last time you heard a live performance of a piece by J.C.F. Bach or Jan Ladislav Dussek or Sophia Giustina Corri or Niels Gade or Joaquim Raff or their even lesser known American contemporaries such as William Henry Fry or George Frederick Bristow? But all of them can be accessed pretty easily through recordings nowadays, and thanks to sites like, their scores are actually easy to acquire.

      Let’s just hope that in the remainder of the 21st century there will continue to be incentive to keep as much music available as there has been in the past couple of decades. Although I also know full well that what has been available thus far is still hardly all that’s out there and it is ultimately not enough which is why we need to keep making more of it!

  2. Justin T. Capps

    It is surely a thankless and futile task to attempt to formulate a master list of composers from any era, particularly when devising any implicit rank ordering. No matter how many genuine assertions are made that the list is not to be taken as such, some will conclude that omission is the equivalent of launching insults at an neglected composer’s music, pupils, and no doubt grandmother. There are a number of reasons for this.

    Firstly, assessments of artistic merit and/or innovation are inherently subjective. Secondly, there will always be a compulsory desire on the part of some to see the works that they know or love acknowledged, a want that functions as a blend of establishing “hipster” cred by possessing awareness of the wrongly obscure (or, more likely, simply excluded due to time and space limitations of a blog entry) and self-validating of one’s own personal fetishes and listening habits.

    A third issue, which I believe lies snugly against the underbelly of these flare ups, is the perception that there is an “in crowd”, eager to generate a contained and self-sustaining cycle of professional acknowledgement that passes along freely within the circle but rarely outside of it. To those who are inside the circle, this is perhaps dismissed as petty jealousy. To those outside of the circle, it may be regarded as a fact so strongly evidenced that there is no need to mention it overtly. The pattern of geographic distribution for certain prestigious student composer awards, for example, comes to mind as cause for such suspicion.

    The reality is that there are many different styles of music being written, heard, and studied. But comparatively few of these tend to make their way onto lists such as Rob’s. But there is no need to call him a despot or to become enraged by his failure to include one’s own work, or the work of a composer whom he or she admires. Evolutionary psychology ensures that we will maneuver the world around us by whatever complex calculus may be required so that we do not think ourselves insane due to lack of affirmation by others of our opinions and beliefs. So, by all means, disagree, but know that whoever you are, you are wrong. And don’t shoot the messenger. Or be a jerk.

  3. Ian Pace

    Canon-bashing is to be found all over the place, and certainly the now quaint notion of canons based upon ideals of inexorable musical ‘progress’ deserved a proper knock. But selecting some things from musical history, and not others, is an inevitable necessity if one is to do any pedagogical work, and try and give some sense of music being more than simply a set of entirely atomised entities, with no relationship either to other musical works of types of music, or wider social, historical and political events.

    And whilst there are certainly plenty of relatively neglected works by minor composers of all eras still to be discovered, and some questions of the precise nature of canonisation to be reconsidered (such as the Beethoven/Rossini issue to which I alluded above, and which has been the subject of a whole conference, or more widely the Austro-Germanic bias, in various sense, of musical history as commonly taught from the 18th to early 20th centuries), I have yet to be convinced that many of the new ‘discoveries’ would necessarily stand the test of time and repeated listening as much as have many of the canonised composers. New performances of works of Dussek or Gade or Raff (or Pacini or Cui or Brüll or many others) are to be welcomed, but I would be very surprised if many listeners would remain as enthusiastic about this work after, say, 10-15 listenings as they might with works of Mozart, Beethoven, the better Rossini operas, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Musorgsky, etc.

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author


      While I really appreciate your comments here (and I am particularly interested in learning more about the Beethoven/Rossini conference you mention), I have to respectfully disagree with your latest assertion. Among the works I have returned to most over the years are several works that “didn’t make the cut” for whatever reason, pieces like the Saint-Saëns’s Requiem, André Caplet’s Le Miroir de Jesus, the piano sonatas of Hyacinthe Jadin, the Piano Trio of Amy Beach, etc. Therefore I remain extremely suspicious of the closed lid mentality of the standard repertoire, even though I also truly love the chamber music of Brahms and the solo piano music of Debussy which are among the most tried and true “classical” music repertoire I can think of. (Except for Tristan, which I adore, I confess a bit of a block with Wagner–too big, and self important. I much prefer the equally expansive yet more humble symphonies of Bruckner which Wagner’s operas and Brahms’s “absolute” music both overshadow, partially I think due to historians’ once-upon-a-time quest to reduce history into binaries.)

      The solo keyboard sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, which are only now in the process of being recorded for the first time by the extraordinary Miklós Spányi, are an unfathomable treasure trove and their availability through such committed performances will hopefully get people to rethink the received wisdom about how music evolved during the 18th century. I believe we’d get similar epiphanies if someone were to tackle all the keyboard sonatas of Dussek. It was not a direct linear path from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven and thence to the so-called Romantics. This is not to diminish any of these composers, but they’re not the only ones we should listen to. There’s also a whole world millennia deep beyond the classical music that was made in Europe.

      As a lifelong advocate for new music, and a composer myself as well as an ethnomusicologist, I’ve always wanted to open the door to make room for others. But the job is only half done and ultimately half-hearted if we merely open up a space here and there to include a few people from our own time and from our own place (wherever that pace may be) into the pantheon. We should be constantly seeking out the unfamiliar from all times and places, remaining curious about new experiences while at the same time willing to make an effort to deeply know something which requires far more than an initial encounter with it. Again, there are not enough hours in the day, you might counter and you’d be right. Much as I would want to, I can never hear it all. No one can at this point. But I’d rather explore whatever music comes into my life on its own terms (wherever it may come from) than to capitulate to the received wisdom that tells me that there are clearly only a handful of immortal masterpieces from a select group of people from a certain part of the world and that everything else just isn’t worth my time; in my experience it has all been worth my time.

  4. Ian Pace

    I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there is a pressing need to rethink many conventional musico-historical narratives, and consider the important historical roles of the likes of Dussek, or John Field, or the now-forgotten Polish composers from whom Chopin clearly derived a great deal, as Halina Goldberg has explored in her really excellent book Music in Chopin’s Warsaw, just to take a few examples; and I would be the last one to argue for a ‘a direct linear path from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven and thence to the so-called Romantics’. In my own music history teaching I am often making much of otherwise neglected figures who are historically important (for example, a few pre-Glinka Russian composers, or various of the numerous composers prominent in French musical life between the death of Berlioz and the appearance of Debussy’s first mature works). And as regards C.P.E. Bach, I would have no problem considering him a composer to be compared with the likes of Haydn and Mozart. And would also argue that Italian, Russian and French traditions in the 19th century should be considered as of equivalent importance and value as their Germanic equivalents (I’m less convinced with respect to British and American traditions from the same period).

    All I am arguing is that I am not so sure a large amount of the more neglected music, whilst historically interesting, is really of the top notch (I would make a few exceptions, not least amongst the work of the 1870-1890 period in France). I don’t mean figures such as Bellini or Musorgsky or Smetana or Saint-Saëns who tend to get somewhat sidelined in a lot of histories, but (for example) the endless works churned out in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, or the sonatas of Kalkbrenner, or the very early operas of Donizetti (or, for that matter, a good deal of Haydn, or some of Schubert’s piano duet music). All stuff I’m interested to hear now and then, but I find implausible the idea that this could stand its own against a lot of other major repertoire from the time.

    There’s an essay by Charles Rosen (I think it’s in his entirely apt demolition of Tia DeNora’s book on Beethoven) where he quotes someone saying words to the effect of ‘we don’t know how many more Eroicas there might be out there’. As he rightly points out, little-known works are continually being excavated from that time, but could anyone honestly say that any of them could be compared with the Eroica? Some music has fallen into relative neglect for understandable reasons.

    As for the Beethoven/Rossini conference, I wasn’t there, but a friend/former colleague was; I will ask her more about that at some point.

    1. Justin Capps

      I would like to suggest that there are a good many works by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven that are not really “top notch”. We have just overlooked those works, letting the others, classified as masterpieces, serve in a synecdochic role. For insight into the sociopolitical machine that prioritized these composers, and allowed their chief successes to be highlighted, I would encourage reading K.M. Knittel’s “The Construction of Beethoven” and Tia DeNora’s “Beethoven, the Viennese Canon, and the Sociology of Identity, 1793-1803.”

  5. Judith Lang Zaimont

    Oops, Frank — Either I was imprecise this time out, or you misunderstood the thrust of my S21 posting. (It concerned one philosophy of programming.)

    What I addressed was the paucity of answering that perennial question “Where are the (good) women composers?” with a partial answer which just lists my considerable group of ‘sisters’ and leaves it at that. And I answered with exasperation because I’ve individually and many times tried to answer with specific citations – these, however, just seem to get lost in the ether.

    We should continue to celebrate — as we have loudly, at length, and pointedly over the past 30+ years — the vital, inspired and tangled flood of women who write music. (My four books on this subject are a small component in this continued celebration.)

    My exasperation however comes from incidents like this:

    In the latter ‘90s a respected musicologist colleague came to me privately to ask for my recommendations for *one* work by a woman to add to his basic music-history syllabus. Instead, I gave him a list of 8 pieces, scattered across the 19th and 20th centuries and suggested he acquaint himself with all of them and then pick for himself. Rebecca Clarke’s great Viola Sonata eventually made its way into his course offering.
    Great outcome, right? Wrong – because he didn’t go at all beyond off-loading his “research”. And because with this accomplished, ‘duty’ in this direction was done.

    I’m still trying to find our why significant female composers of past eras so quickly fall out of the collective consciousness of our professional community.

    And I suspect, then, that a programming philosophy like that of J. Michele Edwards is the long-term right way to go. She simply, constantly, and quietly programs music by women on every single program she puts together. (Just like Joanne Polk and I did with our “American Accent” season programs.)
    No fanfare, no highlighted bang-the-drum. Just do it.

  6. Mark N. Grant

    Hey, am I alone in observing that this is one of the very, very few threads in NewMusicBox history ever to celebrate music and composers of the pre-1925 past? Bravo! While Frank J. Oteri in his blogs frequently refers to pre-1900 composers, very, very rarely have NMB posters taken him up on it in an ongoing thread like the above.

    The future and the present do not exist in an anhistorical vacuum, yet you’d often think they do reading comments on these pages for the last five years.


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