Confessional is open for business

I got a not entirely undeserved thrashing in the comments regarding my Barber post for an ill-considered assertion about Barber’s relative importance. I wish I hadn’t written that sentence, even though I think it is not 100% indefensible, especially if I had defined “importance”.  But since one of my commenters brought up the notion, let’s all (commenters included) cultivate humility rather than arguments.  In the interest of virtue (and further thought about some of the issues raised in those comments), try on the following questions – examine your conscience – come on, sinners, get in line! (I am purposely leaving the criteria for “important” up to you – subjective, objective, personal, historical – though if you think you know which kind you are using, think again.)

1a – Name a composer whose work you consider unimportant, even though you are not familiar with all of that composer’s major works.

1b – Name a composer whose work you consider important, even though you are not familiar with all of that composer’s major works.

2 – Is there a composer whose works you have chosen to remain ignorant about because you know from a few samplings that they are unimportant? How did you determine that?

3 – Name a composer whose work you once prized but who has now diminished in your evaluation as you have studied more of his/her music.

4 – For jazz practitioners: name five living classical composers and say why they are important; and for classical composers, do the same for five living jazz musicians. Those who fail to complete this question may go directly to the nearest music library.

5 – How often have you considered a composer unimportant because his or her work might lead you to question your own aesthetic choices?

6 – Name your guilty pleasure: a composer whose work you consider important – even though in your heart you know you shouldn’t.

7 – Have you ever revisited the work of a composer you considered unimportant – and changed your mind?

8 – Think of a composer you find unimportant. Give three reasons why you may be wrong in that judgement.

9 – Have you ever clung to your opinion that a composer is important because that is a minority opinion?


A few relevant links:

– Davy’s famous buttstix.

– John Harbison’s 1984 Tanglewood talks, part 1, part 2 (Jstor access required) include a discussion of influences and personal canon formation (Perspectives of New Music, Volume 23, No. 2; Volume 24, No. 1).

– Lots of interesting material at Walter Simmons’ website here.


And two anecdotes relevant to making judgements about music:

I recall turning pages for a distinguished pianist as he rehearsed a very difficult, very boring new work. During breaks in rehearsal he would turn to me and say “It’s a masterpiece, isn’t it? A masterpiece!” It later occurred to me that he had put so much time into learning the piece that he had convinced himself it had to be a masterpiece, since he would not have wasted his time on a dull piece.

After I remarked to composer X that composer Y was very much under-appreciated, X shook his head in agreement. A moment passed, and then he burst out, “We’re all under-appreciated!”

3 thoughts on “Confessional is open for business

  1. First, let me apologize for what may have been received as harsh and/or haughty in my comments on this subject last week. Second, let me express my appreciation for the gracious tone you maintained in your responses. Though it is no excuse, sometimes my intense feelings about the very issues raised here and in reference to Barber last week overwhelm my sense of propriety. I will try to be more careful here.
    Although your questions about “importance” are provocative, I decline to attempt to answer them, because without a precise definition, the concept of “importance” is meaningless to me—importance in the sense of enlarging the standard repertoire? importance in the sense of influencing other composers? importance in the sense of introducing new techniques? importance in the sense of imbuing one’s work with expressions of profound insight into the human condition? It seems to me that whatever the vague term “importance” may mean, it is something best assessed in retrospect—and a few decades isn’t long enough. Therefore, attempts to assess “importance” regarding music of the present or recent past are really attempts to predict future judgments, and regardless of how diplomatically this is expressed, it is extremely presumptuous. Why would someone prefer to evaluate the “importance” of a work or a composer, rather than express one’s own personal reaction to it or him/her, which is really the most honest feedback that a listener or critic can offer? I believe the answer is that the listener or critic is attempting to vaunt his opinions beyond the personal, the subjective, the idiosyncratic, and launch them into the “higher plane” of the long historical perspective, perhaps to get a jump on posterity. Seen in this way, such comments are both intellectually dishonest and pretentious in the extreme.

    1. Thank you for your note, Walter.

      I recognize what you are saying about the need to define “importance”, and how that term can be a tool for masking mere personal preferences as weighty verdicts. But as far as the present post, I purposely left the term undefined, inviting readers to question both what they mean by the term and whether distinctions like “subjective” or “objective” start to become blurred upon closer consideration. I do think we all throw the word “importance” around in a casual, even sloppy way that should be re-examined, and perhaps repented as need be.

      Thanks for reading.

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